"Pygmalion" as British Imperialism

24 November 2008

This is an essay that I wrote in November 2008 for my British Empire class, taught by Dr. Peter Linebaugh. It is based on George Bernard Shaw's biting social commentary, Pygmalion. While Shaw's direct intention with Pygmalion was to criticize the class structure in place in Britain at the start of the 20th Century, it is perhaps only an extra step to examine how that disparate class system fit into the British Empire as a whole. That extra step is the basis of my approach here. Not the immediate social differences between Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle but rather the bigger picture of how these two represent archtypes throughout the Empire.

* * *

In seeking out a piece of literature that delves into the workings of the British Empire I have chosen to think outside of the box. Instead of picking up a volume with tales of His or Her Majesty’s soldiers marching o’er the land and claiming the world under the wide-spread authority of the Union Jack, I’ve chosen to stray no further than London itself in choosing George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 play, Pygmalion. Portraying the story of Professor Henry Higgins and his quest to refine unsophisticated flower-seller Eliza Doolittle into a dignified woman of society, Pygmalion addresses the Empire from a very internal, central source. Higgins has no perceived interest in going forth into the world and scooping up territories under the King’s dominion, short of the interesting languages that can be discovered along the way to keep him, a trained and eager phonetician, constantly at work deciphering and cataloguing the diversity of dialects from the far-reaching corners of the globe. Indeed, as shall be seen with his cohort, Colonel Pickering, the study of languages and dialects is of relevance to these two men, but ultimately of little concern to Eliza and the rest of the cast. To the average man or woman, even those interested in the languages abroad, territorial claims by the British crown are given little worry overall. Yet, this story still holds imperial significance at its core. Through the adventure of Eliza Doolittle, the viewer is presented with a metaphor of an imperial cycle: discovery, colonization, revolution, and independence. Each part of this cycle shall be investigated in turn.

Henry Higgins discovers Eliza Doolittle quite by accident. Taking cover under a church’s portico during a driving rainstorm, Eliza is a humble and unkempt flower girl, selling violets to passerby though, on this evening, she is finding herself being trampled and jostled by those citizens belonging to a class above her lowly status, who see her as uncultured and not worth a second thought. Her attempts to sell flowers are repeatedly brushed off by bystanders, including one Colonel Pickering. Speaking with a nearly incomprehensible Cockney accent, poor, dirty Eliza would likely have spent her life in this gutter, selling flowers until old age if not for a bit of luck for, as a gentleman points out to her, another man has been writing down every word she speaks. Higgins, a phonetician, is not so much as transcribing her thoughts but rather her dialect, using shorthand to record the sound of her utterances and noise of her accent. A fine specimen of what Higgins, with his upper class idea of what constitutes a proper British tongue, considers a true racket – though nonetheless interesting. Finding it necessary to defend himself when cornered, Higgins explains that Eliza’s poor grasp of English pronunciation is what will keep her forever grounded in lower class poverty when she could rise to the middle class simply by being trained in a correct manner of speak. Similar to an English explorer coming across a new civilization overseas, Higgins sees Eliza as uncultured and unsophisticated and in need of his wizened assistance. Where the English imperialists would hope to bring English society and values to improve the lives and welfare of those perceived savages in foreign lands for some form of exploitative gain, Higgins is taken to viewing Eliza in the same light: as a pathetic creature who can be taught a better way of living so that he may, in turn, gain something from the effort.

The gain from the effort comes by way of Colonel Pickering. Higgins identifies his accent as a mixture of “Cheltenham, Harrow, Cambridge, and India,” tracing Pickering’s life from birth through his education and service to the Empire abroad. (294) As a result of his travels for the crown, Pickering has become an expert of Indian dialects and authored a volume entitled “Spoken Sanskrit,” and is now in London to meet Higgins. A happy team is formed between the two men as the rain dissipates and they depart for Higgins’ home and laboratory, the professor throwing a handful of change at Eliza out of frustration and pity as she continues to hold him up. While Eliza represents an decided challenge, Higgins’ upper-class self-importance initially causes him to turn his nose on her once the initial interest runs dry. However, her appearance at his domicile the following day provokes a wager with Pickering: that in six months dowdy little Eliza may be transformed through strict teaching into being able to pass off as a duchess. Higgins’ talk of her status through dialect and unintentional sway with his handful of coins caused a change of faith within Eliza as she reassesses her role in English society. A surprise encounter with her garbage-man father, Alfred Doolittle, does little to ease Higgins’ doubts as he pays the man five pounds which he promises to promptly spend on alcohol, though Higgins is impressed at the man’s oratory skills. With this, Professor Higgins plants the proverbial flag and begins the process of converting Eliza into a woman with proper image and values, according to the mindset of London high society. (307)

Though much of Eliza’s reeducation is skipped over in the narrative for want of time and pacing, several stages of the process are shown. As the months pass, Higgins gradually turns Eliza from a sassy street urchin with a difficult-to-understand accident and a propensity for non-word exclamations such as “garn!” and “ah-ah-ah-ow-ow-oo!” to a proper and clear pronunciation of the English language. Much as missionaries might travel to colonies abroad to spread English values and Christian morals, Higgins has systematically rebuilt Eliza in his figure of perfection – namely, himself. Despite Higgins’ knowledge of phonetics and linguistics, it is eventually shown that he has little understanding as to how to create a sophisticated woman of society and instead tries to form Eliza in his own image. Though not fully extrapolated upon in Shaw’s play, the musical adaptation, My Fair Lady, by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, further emphasizes Higgins’ woes at Eliza’s resistance to being transformed into a female Higgins with the song, “A Hymn to Him,” wherein the professor quips, “why can’t a woman be like me?” It is not a smooth process, and disputes between the two were not unheard of, but over time Higgins won out doing what he would later describe as “inventing new Elizas.” (327)

The reformed Eliza Doolittle was initially a barely functioning project at her first trial runs at an at-home day with guests at Higgins’ mother’s house, several months into the conversion process. Restricted to discussing the weather and one’s health, Eliza, though perfectly understandable and exhibiting a more sophisticated air from her conversion process, was still prone to slipping back into her crude pre-Higgins nature with macabre claims that, while her aunt’s death was blamed on influenza, Eliza believed that someone had potentially “done her in,” and uncouth curses of “not bloody likely!” (324) Mrs. Higgins’ guests, the class-seeking Eynsford-Hills, being kept unaware of Eliza’s true origins, believed her to be merely an eccentric with a knack for “the new small talk.” (325) She did succeed in instantly winning the glances of Freddy Eynsford-Hill, a young man who had previously encountered her without a second’s thought on that fateful rainy night under the church’s portico and now quickly became utterly infatuated with this new lady about town. Mrs. Higgins herself remarked to her son after that his grand experiment had been a failure and that Eliza was not at all presentable and expressed concern as to what would happen to the girl upon completion of the experiment, something that neither Higgins nor Pickering had given much thought. However, Higgins’ dogged determination would eventually pay off as several more months passed so that, by the sixth month of Eliza’s metamorphosis, she had become the image of the professor’s perfection. A day and evening filled with a garden party, a dinner party, and the opera concluded Eliza’s training, where she performed to Higgins’ and Pickering’s greatest expectations. Higgins had won his bet from so many months prior: he had succeeded in making a sophisticated woman of society from a lowly guttersnipe. Eliza became in every way – outwardly, at least – the ideal British image of upper-middle class finery, in terms of look, sound, and action. Unfortunately, like the colonies transformed by the Empire into hard-working and efficient societies for the British crown, appearances are merely superficial. Like those colonies – where the imperialists sometimes push too far – something will eventually give. Within Eliza the last straw was being pulled.

Higgins and Pickering had succeeded in their goal of reshaping Eliza Doolittle in their image. Unfortunately, in doing so it quickly became evident that Eliza’s well-being was not their aim throughout this process. There was something to be exploited. Like India’s tea, Eliza’s transformation into a societal butterfly produced a beneficial byproduct: rich personal satisfaction on a job well done and definitive proof of their theory that any wretched creature may be made into an apple of society. Extolling in their own glory, Eliza is quickly forgotten as the two men revel in the process remarking their pleasure at the end of the long road. Eliza, coming to realize that they did not actually seem to care about her well-being, begins building animosity towards her supposed benefactors. While she has adopted their carefully constructed upper-class image to the nines, she realizes that this image was not built for her own sake but for the sake of her superiors in this endeavour. She explodes, akin to a colony rising up in revolution against its imperial masters. Throwing Higgins’ slippers at him and decrying his cruelty and bullying. Higgins, oblivious to any problems she may have felt, is more-or-less caught off guard by this outburst. A dam has been breeched. As the waters flood out, Higgins quickly looses control of his creation. Eliza, the hot-tempered girl from the streets, not so easily subdued by a refined exterior, bursts forth and curses the man who had taken her under his wing. She demands to know what will happen to her, something Higgins still has not given proper thought. He suggests opening a flower shop or marriage, the latter course Eliza equates with selling herself … something she never did even as a poor flower girl. (333) Still not believing in any real problem, Higgins goes to bed. Fuming, Eliza leaves. She had stood up to the man who had taught her to be a lady for his own gain. The revolution had been short and bloodless, but it not yet over.

A confrontation the following day at Mrs. Higgins’ house brings the professor and the new-found lady together again. Though Eliza can only thank Pickering for being kind to her, for treating her like a lady even when she was the hapless flower girl, and for being courteous and chivalrous without even thinking, her attitude towards Higgins remains cold. Higgins fully expects Eliza to come back with him and Pickering, to let bygones be bygones and set this little revolt behind them. Eliza would prefer a more permanent course of action.

Eliza’s time with Higgins is at its end. She is fully prepared to sever all ties and never look back on this man. Still believing that he will win back her admiration for further work – though nothing of any romantic affiliation, as he desires nothing more than to remain a confirmed old bachelor – Higgins continues to berate her and accuse her of using his own knowledge against him. Maybe marriage isn’t so bad, she supposes. After all, her father, unwittingly and unhappily driven into the middle class by Higgins’ insistence to a dying man of the garbage man’s fine oratory, is finally about to have himself married off to her stepmother. Why shouldn’t she be entitled to the same? Freddy fancies her, and she him, but the professor would rather have her married off to the Governor-General of India or Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland, some official with authority within the Empire “who wants a deputy-queen,” rather than a nobody like Freddy. (349) Finally driven over the edge, Eliza makes her demand: “If I can’t have kindness, I’ll have independence.” Higgins’ response: “That’s middle class blasphemy.” (349) Exasperated, Eliza leaves, potentially forever. In the process of creating a duchess from a vagrant, Professor Higgins unwittingly gave the power of self-identification, respect, and independence. As the story ends he has lost his experiment (despite winning the wager), has sullied ties with his mother, and may have strained relations with Pickering. Yet, despite it all, the final moment is of Higgins, in a cheery mood, jauntily expecting Eliza’s return to do his business once more. (350)

Through the course of Pygmalion, the plight of Eliza Doolittle under the near-tyrant Henry Higgins seems a microcosm of an imperial cycle of discovery, colonization, revolution, and independence. Though both parties benefited in some way or another, ultimately it was Eliza who was on the losing side. Subject to the whims and tirades of Higgins, who was more interested in his gain from the experiment than hers, Eliza’s revolt seems quite in line with the larger-scale revolutions that came by colonies under the English crown. Though the relationship between Higgins and Eliza never became in any way romantic, the tensions resulted in the professor never seeing his student as an equal. He expresses as much in their final argument, exclaiming, “I think a woman fetching a man’s slippers is a disgusting sight: did I ever fetch your slippers? I think a good deal more of you for throwing them in my face. No use slaving for me and then saying you want to be cared for: who cares for a slave?” (347) Not, of course, did he make this clear to her at any previous point, where he expected his duchess in the making to know where to find things and to remind him of his appointments. Higgins expected certain actions out of Eliza, and then thought her a fool for carrying them out. Even as she storms out in the final scene, Higgins is fully expecting her to continue to run errands for him.

The six months spent under Henry Higgins’ tutelage, while emotionally harmful to Eliza, did have the positive effect of building her up from a lowly flower girl into a sophisticated societal woman. With this, Eliza is free to take up work potentially in ownership of a flower stand, as Higgins suggests, rather than peddling them on the streets. A possible benefit of imperialism, though earned by blood, tears, and fire, is a greater sense of purpose by being equipped and forced to unite for a cause. India, certainly, is a stronger nation on the world stage as a result of their being colonized, followed by revolution and independence, as are America, Ireland, South Africa, and (though some may argue otherwise) Iraq. Others, especially some nations in Africa, may be worse for the wear when all was said and done. Eliza, despite her newfound position in life and potential future with Freddy, far away from phoneticians, may go far in life, though she may never fully recover some of the emotional damage caused by Higgins’ abuse which, while never physical, was still harmful to her psyche. In the end, her independence is to be celebrated. Not to say that Henry Higgins – or the British Empire as a whole – are terrible, monstrous things. They merely hold self-importance passed down to them from their forbearers. In Higgins’ case, his middle to upper-class upbringing, inherited by his ancestors. In the Empire’s case, the gradual build-up of the United Kingdom until it became the most powerful nation in the Western world. Both entities were able to see what they wanted and accomplish their tasks. The Empire is not inherently evil; though it did not always operate with the good of its colonies in mind. Similarly, Higgins is not a terrible person who has it out for poor Eliza. Rather, as he says to his pupil, “the question is not whether I treat you rudely, but whether you ever heard me treat anyone else better.” (346) Higgins is a product of ego, with expectations of gain. Eliza, a product of emotion with a poor father figure, who latched onto Higgins and Pickering as benefactors, then revolted when she came to realize the truth about their cooperation. As a result of the imperialist relationship, she is better for the wear, able to go off and make herself into something she could never be before, thanks to a bit of cultivation to meet the expectations of the society of the era’s most powerful nation.

Shaw, George Bernard. George Bernard Shaw’s Plays. Edited by Sandie Byrne. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2002.


Engaged 8 September 2009 | Updated 8 September 2009