Avon Van Hassel

Building Worlds and Filling Them With Magic

Continuing with my ’12 Meses 12 libros’ challenge, this month I read Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw. If that sounds familiar to you, you may recognise it by the name of the musical based on it–My Fair Lady. So, if you’re not a fan of musical theatre, skip this post, because there will be gifs.

This month’s theme for the ’12 Meses 12 Libros’ challenge was ‘a book you should have read in school, but didn’t.’ Well, it should come as no shock to you that I was a literature nerd in school. I read my English assignments in every other class while the teacher was lecturing (yeah, I was an ass), so there aren’t many books we were assigned that I didn’t actually read. And I’m not in the place in my life to read dystopian spec fic like 1984 or depressing reads like the Diary of Anne Frank.  I’m not saying they’re not worthwhile reads by any means, just that they don’t appeal to me for a challenge that’s supposed to be fun.

So, I did what any book nerd does in a bind–I asked Goodreads. Some darling of an overachiever listed Pygmalion. I was hesitant at first because it’s a play, not a novel, but Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar are on that list (and I swear to god, the next person who calls Hamlet a ‘book’ is getting the collected works of Shakespeare straight to the face. Just because it is bound doesn’t make it a book.)

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So here’s a little glimpse into the inner life of Baby Avon. My mother introduced us to musical theatre at a young age. I recall being obsessed with The Music Man, My Fair Lady, and Cats as far back as third grade. My sister read Pygmalion earlier this year and giggled all the way through, so when it came up on the list of things some awesome kid read in high school, I was thrilled. You may have noticed that I have something of an affinity for source material, so I knew what to expect. It’s funny, nerdy as all hell, has a strong female, and it’s short, which is something I value in my busy life.

Oh, and this version has Discussion Questions, which I love. So let’s dive in.

How would you update Pygmalion for the twenty-first century? How would the story or the characters have to be changed? Would it work if the genders were reversed–if the professor were a woman and the Cockney flower seller were a young man?

This is an interesting question, and I have a feeling it’s going to fester. But the immediate answer that comes to mind is that I think it would be a challenge. Alfred Doolittle, every bit the Cockney that Eliza is, has no trouble climbing the social ladder and being accepted into the middle class, despite how he speaks. Eliza must change a lot about herself in order to change how people respond to her. In a modern setting, the female professor (with or without Higgins’ personality) would be seen as a bitch and her pupil as long-suffering and beaten down.

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Perhaps it’s jaded, but I don’t think society has arrived at a place where we can accept a female (Henrietta?) Higgins with the same indulgent affection like we do for Henry. And I don’t think we can have a crying male (Elias?) Eliza begging to be treated kindly without it turning into him defending his manhood against an overbearing female, or else the audience will likely criticise him for being weak, effeminate, and unsympathetic.

Shaw’s refusal to have Eliza and Higgins fall in love has remained one of the most controversial aspects of Pygmalion. Should Higgins and Eliza fall in love? Could they? What is at stake in Shaw’s refusal–that is, what kind of messages would an Eliza/Higgins romance send to the audience. How does the Sequel affect your perception of the ending?

This is one of those topics that can turn into a multi-paragraph rant really easily because it is a soapbox issue for me.  Magic Beans has a romantic subplot (I KNOW! I’ve acknowledged that that series is outside my comfort zones in a lot of ways!), but I’m generally resistant to the notion that I book must have romance (to hold the women readers’ attention, of course), and that it must happen between the two leads, if they’re a man and a woman.

Couple of quick things:

  1. No, you don’t. That should be enough. But since it isn’t, I’ll go on.
  2. Just because a straight man and a straight woman know each other, it doesn’t mean they’ll fall in love, or even be attracted to each other. As proof, allow me to direct you to around 60% of my platonic relationships. Speaking from experience, here, folks. Yes, I’m capable of finding people attractive, and I have had a crush on a few of my friends, but not all of them, and not even necessarily the ones I’m closest to. Human attraction is a complex and complicated thing. Don’t cheapen it.
  3. Also, there is a pretty solid argument for Henry being gay. I won’t outline it because it’s not super important because that’s not the point of the play, the point Shaw was trying to make, or even relevant. The point is, what do we have to pair everyone up?
  4. Never give in to fan service. I repeat, NEVER GIVE IN TO FAN SERVICE. If your story is heading that way anyway, fine. But if you’re doing something because the shippers want it, you’ll destroy it. It will feel shoehorned in there, and the pay-off won’t be what you want because half the fans who wanted it will be pissed about how you did it, and the other half will be pissed that you did it at all. If the X Files can’t make it work, no one can.
  5. Allowing Eliza to fall in love with Higgins is a slap in the face to her as a character. he is emotionally distant, abusive, intolerant, and smug; everything she isn’t. They like each other fine enough, but they are oil and water. To allow her to fall in love with him would be to strip her of her humanity, her complexity, her self-respect, and everything that makes her who she is. It would make her weak and insipid for absolutely no reason validated by the actual story.
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Become? Gee, I can’t imagine why Eliza wouldn’t want to hitch her wagon to THAT…

…Damn it. I tried to keep it short, guys. I really did.

Eliza’s father, Alfred, never misses an opportunity to shirk responsibility, or to make a profit for the least amount of effort. Yet he refuses to take twice the amount for Eliza when it’s offered, and Higgins, only half joking, calls him ‘the most original moralist’ in Britain. Do Doolittle’s criticisms of ‘middle-class morality’ have any validity? Or is he just an unusually eloquent and witty slacker?

It’s honestly a little of both. He does make some very decent roundabout points on the counter-intuitive aspects of wealth that people rarely think about. (I know, boo hoo).

My mum and I were talking about household servants the other day, as one does, and we touched briefly on a scene in Downton Abbey where Matthew Crowley objects to being dressed by his valet, and Mr Molesley  explains that while Matthew can very well get dressed on his own, Mr Molesley’s job is to do it for him. A house like Downton Abbey is not only a grand and comfortable house for the family, it is a source of employment for other people in the area, and that’s how jobs like the dozens of distinct positions came into being–as a way of giving finding jobs for people to do so that the rich people didn’t have to do them, but also so that other people could actually get jobs. Little cogs in the bit capitalist machine.

Alfred lived outside the machine, as a dustman. Not in the modern usage, meaning a garbage collector, but in that he gathered dust, a layabout. His name is a damn pun. By his own admission, he’d ‘touch people’ for a bob or two (ask for money outright, like he did with Henry), but now everyone’s touching him. And then there’s the business about the wedding…

Many audience members, critics, and even Higgins himself find Freddy Eynsford-Hill weak, shallow, even stupid. Why do you think Eliza marries him? And for that matter, what does Freddy see in Eliza? Is he bright enough to know what he’s getting into by marrying her?

First of all, Higgins thinks that of everyone but his mother. I think Eliza marries him for the reasons she said, because he loved her. He treated her properly. I think in her, he sees someone wholly original, someone refreshingly unpredictable, but also warm and affectionate, and probably, yes, smarter than he is. I think it would be a boon for his social climbing family as well, seeing how well she did at the garden party.  Indeed, Eliza is something of an accidental trendsetter, which appeals to Freddy’ sister, Clara.

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Shaw has often been accused of writing characters who are mere mouthpieces for his ideas rather than fully rounded theatrical characters with complex psychologies. Do you think this criticism is applicable to Pygmalion?

Haha, yes. It’s not even subtle.

That being said, there are some subtleties. Pickering is warm and kind, but often does get distracted by Henry’s cleverness. It’s arguable that Eliza is more mad at him after the garden party than she is at Higgins. She expected Higgins to be an ass, but Pickering might have given her some acknowledgement, and didn’t.

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For shame, Pickering…

Mrs Higgins is very concerned about her position in society, but pities what her son and Pickering are putting Eliza through and drops everything to help her when asked. Mrs Pearce likewise is concerned for Eliza’s wellbeing, despite her annoyance.

Alfred, obviously, is enormously complex, even for the two scenes he’s in. And Eliza herself isn’t just the common flower girl that Higgins thinks of her as. In fact, at numerous times in the play, he remarks that she has a better ear even than he does, an unconscious observation,  a throwaway comment to him, but it makes all the difference in the world to her, who thought she would come of nothing else. And man, she remembered in her big fight with him when she came to the idea of opening her own phonetics school. Zing!

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How are women portrayed in Pygmalion? Is this a feminist play? Why or why not? In his life as a political activist, Shaw was an outspoken supporter of women’s rights, but is he a feminist in Pygmalion? Is Eliza? What does ‘feminist’ mean, exactly, anyway?

Lol, are you asking me, questioner, because you don’t know?

Well, for the record, to be a feminist is to believe that women and men deserve equal rights and equal treatment.

And if you believe that we already have that, I direct you back to the notion of the genderswapped Pygmalion, and challenge you to keep your opinions unchanged. It only works because we were unequal then and remain so today. It should be about class and education and language, and not about gender; but it isn’t. It’s about the complex fabric of inequality in Britain at the time, but translates to modern America, as well.

I think the women are portrayed well in Pygmalion. For every adorably assholish thing that Henry says, Mrs Pearce, Mrs Higgins, or Eliza has a zinger ready for him. But they’re not bitches; they get along handsomely together, with Pickering, with the Eynsdord-Hills–it’s just him who sets them off (psst–maybe he’s the problem). They all make logical and measured arguments throughout the play, which he impulsively bats away and then pays for later. Mrs Eysford-Hill and Clara have a very believable mother-daughter relationship that I identify with quite easily.

I would say that it is a feminist play. There are a few moments that make your heart fairly break for Eliza and her situation, and as much as you want to like Henry because he is clever and funny, you do want to shake him and tell him to stop being such a dick all the time.

Oh, did I mention that it also drew on inspiration from Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella?

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Well, hello there, unexpected relevance to my own interests

Eliza has a strong character arc where she begins one way and ends a totally different way, finding out a lot about herself along the way. She starts off strong and independent, then in her endeavour to better herself, she is broken down and reshaped. She could be defeated and overrun by the abuse, but instead, finds her strength again and rises from the ashes even stronger, more independent, and indeed more empowered in just about every way because of the experience. She relies on her innate talents and dignity to get her through the hardship and makes important allies along the way. I think she’s tremendously inspiring.

In the end, Eliza herself decides not to teach what she learned from Higgins, but took up the original idea of opening her own flower shop, and thus she began as a flower girl, and ended a flower girl, and she lived happily ever after.

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(Side note, at the time of this posting, Ireland just voted to repeal the ban on abortion. I find it fitting that we end the discussion on feminism in Pygmalion, and George Bernard Shaw, a proud Irishman himself, on such an historic day for Ireland and women. Congratulations, Ireland! Éirinn go Brách!)

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So, that’s all for Pygmalion, friends. Next month’s theme is ‘a book from a genre you’ve never read.’ I chose The Alchemsist by Paulo Coelho. And I’ll be travelling in June, so travel books seemed appropriate.

What are you guys reading?

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