The world presented in Lady Windermere’s Fan is that of the fashionable English upper-middle-class society of the late 19th century – it is a world of dances, luncheons and tea ceremonies, but also one of moral strictness.
The Duchess of Berwick, an aristocratic and snobbish grande dame, warns the morally good Lady Windermere about her husband’s supposed affair with Mrs Erlynne, a “sinful” woman “with a past”. Lord Windermere’s behaviour is particularly scandalous: he has given away large sums to this Mrs Erlynne; he even invites the shameless Mrs Erlynne to his wife’s birthday party. In full despair Lady Windermere is then prepared to throw herself into the arms of the witty Lord Darlington, thus even leaving her small child behind…
But there is a hidden secret. Who is this mysterious Mrs Erlynne? What is her true identity? The audience may expect a real surprise. How is it possible that Lady Windermere states at the end:
“I don’t think Mrs Erlynne a bad woman. …I want to see her.”
Lady Windermere even comes to the conclusion:
“I don’t think now that people can be divided into the good and the bad.”
Has the world been turned upside down?