"Eliza has no use for the foolish romantic tradition that all women love to be mastered, if not actually bullied and beaten,"
¹ says G.B.Shaw in the afterword to his famous play.
¹By the way, I think this quote should be memorized and repeated on the daily basis by the contemporary authors, especially in the YA genre, who attempt to create female characters. Really. Maybe I can start a campaign encouraging authors' awareness of this quote. Hmmmm...
This was one of the first plays I've ever read, and to this day is one of my favorites. The combination of Shaw's wit and satire with creating an amazingly strong heroine was a treat to read!
The play is brilliant, as witnessed by its continuing success - but it's the afterword from the author that ultimately made it into a five-star read. The afterword that takes this story and makes it wonderfully and firmly grounded in reality (even if it's a reality with somewhat
outdated early 20th century reasoning).The many faces of Eliza Doolittle.
Most people know this story, right? If not from reading the play then from seeing the classic Hollywood's production of My Fair Lady
musical, right? The 1912 story of a simple London Cockney flower girl Eliza
who learns how to speak like a proper British lady from a renown phoneticist (and, honestly, a rather miserable person) Henry Higgins. Both Higgins and Eliza have remarkably strong characters and no wonder that problems ensue (well, because of that and because of the fact that a well-mannered British woman in the early 20th century seemingly did not really have that many choices besides finding herself a man)
. According to the famous movie, sparks also fly between Eliza and Higgins. But do they, really? In the words of Shaw himself,
"Nevertheless, people in all directions have assumed, for no other reason than that she became the heroine of a romance, that she must have married the hero of it."
And that's where the Audrey Hepburn movie lost me. After all, haven't the movie makers read the famous afterword by Shaw himself (and I honestly think that it's just as interesting as the play itself!)
, where he painstakingly details the future lives of his characters and destroys every notion of the happily ever after for Eliza and Higgins
- the ever-after that was already clearly doomed in the play itself:
"LIZA [desperate]: Oh, you are a cruel tyrant. I can't talk to you: you turn everything against me: I'm always in the wrong. But you know very well all the time that you're nothing but a bully. You know I can't go back to the gutter, as you call it, and that I have no real friends in the world but you and the Colonel. You know well I couldn't bear to live with a low common man after you two; and it's wicked and cruel of you to insult me by pretending I could. You think I must go back to Wimpole Street because I have nowhere else to go but father's. But don't you be too sure that you have me under your feet to be trampled on and talked down. I'll marry Freddy, I will, as soon as he's able to support me."
After all, it would not be in character for Eliza, who is not really a romantic character but a strong, pragmatic, and independent young woman who would not settle for a life of bringing Higgins his slippers
(oh, that awful last line of the movie!!!) and being ignored; a woman who is not beyond a well-aimed slippers throw to the face:
"This being the state of human affairs, what is Eliza fairly sure to do when she is placed between Freddy and Higgins? Will she look forward to a lifetime of fetching Higgins's slippers or to a lifetime of Freddy fetching hers? There can be no doubt about the answer. Unless Freddy is biologically repulsive to her, and Higgins biologically attractive to a degree that overwhelms all her other instincts, she will, if she marries either of them, marry Freddy.No, Eliza Doolittle is not a woman to be ignored.
And that is just what Eliza did."
She is a strong, independent and level-headed heroine who has guts and self-worth even before her 'magical' lady-like transformation. She knows what she wants, and she determinedly sets out on the path that she thinks would lead her to her dream - working in a flower shop. She may be comical and pathetic in the beginning - but she knows she's not nothing (unlike the view of her that Henry Higgins has)
. She stands up for herself even when she is clearly in an unfavorable situation - a woman vs. a man, a social nothing vs. a respected gentleman, a physically weaker creature vs. a physically more intimidating one:
"I won't be called a baggage when I've offered to pay like any lady."
And from the afterword:
"Even had there been no mother-rival, she would still have refused to accept an interest in herself that was secondary to philosophic interests."
And her feeling of self-worth only increases as the horizons of the society open up more for her. She refuses to play second fiddle even to a powerful and intimidating Higgins. The thing is - Higgins, contrary to his belief, did not "create" Eliza, like the famous literary Pygmalion created his Galatea; he merely gave her more power to achieve what she wants.
And what she wants does not include being ignored and fetching him his bloody slippers. He is a strong man - well, she is an equally strong woman who will have what's best for her. And even if in the end - the afterword - Eliza's independence is not complete and she continues to owe a lot to the duo of Higgins and Pickering - but again, somehow on her own terms.
"But to admire a strong person and to live under that strong person's thumb are two different things."
This was my first time reading this play in English, and reading it in the language it was intended to be read in highlighted even more the brilliance of Shaw as a playwright and the exquisite humor of it. Shaw skillfully deconstructs the notions of the British class system - and does it with easily felt pleasure and enjoyment, and continues to do so in the afterword, which I enjoyed so much. In the end, it's not about Eliza becoming a lady on Henry Higgins' terms; it's all about the shrewd future florist/greengrocer Eliza, and that's the awesomeness of it.
It is an excellent read, a timeless one, thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking. Easy 5 stars!
"Galatea never does quite like Pygmalion: his relation to her is too godlike to be altogether agreeable."