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In The Importance of Being Earnest Algernon says:

In the second place, whenever I do dine there I am always treated as a member of the family, and sent down with either no woman at all, or two. In the third place, I know perfectly well whom she will place me next to, to-night. She will place me next Mary Farquhar, who always flirts with her own husband across the dinner-table. That is not very pleasant. Indeed, it is not even decent . . . and that sort of thing is enormously on the increase. The amount of women in London who flirt with their own husbands is perfectly scandalous.

Later, Lady Bracknell states:

I hope not, Algernon. It would put my table completely out. Your uncle would have to dine upstairs. Fortunately he is accustomed to that.

I presume this is because he would be the only male person in family.

I wonder if these things are inversions of how women were treated in Victorian society? Can you explain more about how the inversions and ridicules made in this play target and ridicule Victorian society?

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    At formal dinners, each gentleman escorted a lady (not his wife) to the dining room and sat next to her at table. Presumably if there were not equal numbers of men and women present, a young man of the family, or a less-important male guest like Algernon, would have to go in on his own or escort two lower-status women. Jan 16 at 9:32
  • Also, you were expected to talk mainly to the people who had been placed on either side of you, not to carry on a conversation with your own husband or wife across the table. This would be considered bad manners, but Algernon is using humorous exaggeration when he calls it 'not decent' and 'scandalous'. Jan 16 at 10:30
  • Since no-one else has commented - Presumably Lord Bracknell being made to 'dine upstairs' was also to do with the relative numbers of men and women at table, though I don't understand why removing another man would help. Jan 17 at 9:22
  • @KateBunting Please consider incorporating those comments into an answer. Thanks!
    – verbose
    Jan 18 at 5:04

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I don't think these comments are anything to do with the treatment of women in general; they are just humorous references to the conventions of Victorian formal dinners.

Sara Paston-Williams in The Art of Dining says "A host and hostess would be most careful to invite an equal number of ladies and gentlemen and the host quietly informed each gentleman, shortly after his arrival, which lady he was to take into or 'hand into' dinner and he had no choice in the matter." Presumably, if it somehow happened that the numbers were not equal a younger son of the family, or a nephew like Algernon, would have to go in alone or escort two women.

I don't understand why Algernon's absence would necessitate Lord Bracknell's 'dining upstairs', as that would mean two fewer men! Also, the host normally escorted the highest-ranking lady guest. Presumably it just shows that the formidable Lady Bracknell regards her husband as a nonentity.

At the table, you were expected to talk mainly with the people on either side of you, not to carry on a conversation with your husband or wife across the table. This would be considered bad manners, but Algernon's description of it as 'not decent' and 'scandalous' are humorous exaggeration - also, of course, a comic reversal of conventional views that you shouldn't flirt with someone else's husband!

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