Is Eliza Really Professor Higgins' Fair Lady?

One more My Fair Lady observation. We've recently discussed Lerner and Lowe's My Fair Lady  and its Bernard Shaw predecessor, Pygmalion -about a petulant linguist, Professor Henry Higgins and his pupil, Eliza Doolittle.

We have discussed how My Fair Lady's ending is more definite than it should be. We mentioned how Eliza has risen from the slums and now may choose any life she wants. We discussed how Shaw leaves the end ambiguous so that any life she chooses is immaterial; choice is her happy ending.

Unfortunately, even in Shaw's day, people want hero and heroine to end up married or otherwise romantically involved, even when that makes no sense to the storyline. My Fair Lady hints at such a conclusion.

Well, here's another nail in the coffin for the supposed romance between Eliza and the professor.

Professor Higgins can never love any human being because his ultimate devotion is to only one fair lady - language, specifically "proper" English.

Yes, this bachelor is married to linguistics. He cannot abide what he thinks of as abuse of his lady. This is why when Eliza says "them slippers" instead of  "those slippers" his quiet tone becomes immediately harsh and loud. He's not simply a teacher correcting his pupil; he's defending his one true love - the English language- from Eliza's indifferent tongue.

Much of Higgins' notorious rudeness can be traced back to defending his fair lady against all onslaughts or protecting their exclusive relationship with each other. 

When he tries to sell the idea of his version of English to Eliza, he says, " your native language is the language of Shakespeare and Milton and The Bible. Don't sit there crooning like a bilious pigeon." Referencing these well-known and revered sources of information, he reminds Eliza of his mistress' pedigree. His lady love should be respected, and he cannot fathom anyone who won't regard her as he does. 

When Eliza speaks in her Listen Grove lingo, full of screeching sounds and loud noises, Higgins declares in hyperbolic fervor that someone, "who utters such depressing and disgusting sounds has no right to be anywhere—no right to live. " You'd think someone had slapped his wife.

Later on, after Eliza has learned to speak like a duchess,  she has also found along the way more strength of character. When Eliza declares, "I won't be passed over," Higgins quickly retorts, "Then get out of my way; for I won't stop for you." He mistakes Eliza's request for basic respect as a request for a kind of intimacy that he's not willing to give to any human. His heart belongs to another.

But Eliza has had plenty of men wanting her "that way," as she calls romance. She understands that at the end of the experiment, Higgins' offer to return to his house as one of the bachelors is not some elaborate ruse of a Lothario, but as... well, let's have her say it:

ELIZA: I want a little kindness. I know I'm a common ignorant girl, and you're a book-learned gentleman; but I'm not dirt under your feet. What I done [correcting herself] what I did was not for the dresses and the taxis: I did it because we were pleasant together and I come—came—to care for you; not to want you to make love to me, and not forgetting the difference between us, but more friendly like.
In her stilted conversation, Eliza makes everything about their relationship clear. Shaw allows some of her slum dialect to slip in again at this point to let the audience know that Eliza is sincere.

Higgins agrees that this is how he feels as well - a platonic relationship is in order. 

They must hash this out in plain language because others might expect that these two should become romantically involved, but both of them plainly declare that they do not expect this from each other.

Higgins feels trapped by society's expectations of what a guy is meant to be when a woman his age or younger comes into his life.  To let a woman in your life, Higgins thinks, is to play a set role that he's not interested in. A man is meant to be a love-sick school boy (like Freddie is to Eliza who writes her letters every day) or a somewhat protective father figure (like his linguistic colleague Colonel Pickering is to Eliza, or Eliza's biological father Alfred Doolittle). 

Higgins wants to be neither. To any person. He's only in love with his vowels and protective against slang. Why can't he have a platonic relationship with women as he has with Pickering?

When he explains to his mother that he hasn't married because
My idea of a loveable woman is something as like you as possible.  

This is not -as some have suggested- an Oedipal connection that stunts his romantic progress; it's a liberating perspective that he wishes he could simply have a friendship with a person that he finds interesting, male or female. 

By the end, in Eliza he has found someone like his mother -grounded, wise, opinionated, expecting no less than basic regard and respect. Also, as it is with his mother, Higgins has no intention of becoming her lover.  Eliza is simply a part of Higgins' life, an exceptional part of it. He's grown accustomed to her face, and he will miss her company if she chooses to leave.
Ultimately, Higgins is a somewhat asexual being who, if anything, is in a love affair with the never-ending mysteries of his native tongue. Before Eliza ever shows up to Higgins' house for tutoring, before there is some question in the audience's mind about whether the pupil and teacher are a romantic match, Higgins' most ardent affections already have a permanent target; his lady love is language and no one will ever take her place.

Further Resources
  • It is the Robert Powell version of Higgins for the BBC in 1981 that brings about today's blog post. Powell brings something rarely seen with this character - tenderness...with the words. He gracefully, eagerly and gently careens around the curves and turns of his lines like a Formula 1 driver at the Monaco Grand Prix. His is fast becoming my favorite version of Higgins.


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