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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

"Walk! Not bloody likely!": Eliza Doolittle and Eliza Bennet

I visited my Dad earlier this afternoon, and as the House Republicans seemed to be taking their own sweet time about voting on the Senate's compromise to avert the dreaded "fiscal cliff" (as of now, still no vote), I did some quick channel surfing and came to My Fair Lady, a film which set my father reminiscing back to when he saw it a half century ago.

And as I watched, my Austen-drenched mind could not help but wander to thinking about a story of spark-filled romantic repartee between an upper-class Englishman with little regard for conventional manners, on the one hand, and a feisty Englishwoman named Eliza from a class below his---a romance which results in mutual transformation in unexpected ways---and as my mind wandered I wondered--- could it BE? Could George Bernard Shaw, in some manner, to some degree, have had Darcy and Eliza in mind when he wrote his famous play?

I was not in the mood today to do some heavy duty sleuthing on this subject, but I did search just enough to zero in on the following scene in Act 3 of Shaw's play, which, I think ought to give pause to any Janeite reading it:

LIZA. Well, that's a mercy, anyhow. [Expansively] What I always say is—
HIGGINS [rising and looking at his watch] Ahem!
LIZA [looking round at him; taking the hint; and rising] Well: I must go. [They all rise. Freddy goes to the door]. So pleased to have met you. Good-bye. [She shakes hands with Mrs. Higgins].
MRS. HIGGINS. Good-bye.
LIZA. Good-bye, Colonel Pickering.
PICKERING. Good-bye, Miss Doolittle. [They shake hands].
LIZA [nodding to the others] Good-bye, all.
FREDDY [opening the door for her] Are you walking across the Park, Miss Doolittle? If so—
LIZA. Walk! Not bloody likely. [Sensation]. I am going in a taxi. [She goes out].
Pickering gasps and sits down. Freddy goes out on the balcony to catch another glimpse of Eliza.
MRS. EYNSFORD HILL [suffering from shock] Well, I really can't get used to the new ways.
CLARA [throwing herself discontentedly into the Elizabethan chair]. Oh, it's all right, mamma, quite right. People will think we never go anywhere or see anybody if you are so old-fashioned.
MRS. EYNSFORD HILL. I daresay I am very old-fashioned; but I do hope you won't begin using that expression, Clara. I have got accustomed to hear you talking about men as rotters, and calling everything filthy and beastly; though I do think it horrible and unladylike. But this last is really too much. Don't you think so, Colonel Pickering?
PICKERING. Don't ask me. I've been away in India for several years; and manners have changed so much that I sometimes don't know whether I'm at a respectable dinner-table or in a ship's forecastle.
CLARA. It's all a matter of habit. There's no right or wrong in it. Nobody means anything by it. And it's so quaint, and gives such a smart emphasis to things that are not in themselves very witty. I find the new small talk delightful and quite innocent.

Eliza takes Henry's hint and is getting ready to depart from the Higgins residence, and then we hear Freddy asking Eliza if she is going to walk across the Park, but she cuts him off memorably (and, a century ago, shockingly) with a zinger, a final lapse into Cockney: "Walk! Not bloody likely!" (a line which, by the way, was altered to a much coarser outburst from Eliza in the film My Fair Lady).

And of course the association I made immediately in my mind was to the following strangely resonant passages early in P&P:

Ch. 7:
Elizabeth, feeling really anxious, was determined to go to her, though the carriage was not to be had; and as she was no horsewoman, walking was her only alternative. She declared her resolution.
"How can you be so silly," cried her mother, "as to think of such a thing, in all this dirt! You will not be fit to be seen when you get there."
"I shall be very fit to see Jane—which is all I want."
"Is this a hint to me, Lizzy," said her father, "to send for the horses?"
"No, indeed, I do not wish to avoid the walk. The distance is nothing when one has a motive; only three miles. I shall be back by dinner."
....In Meryton they parted; the two youngest repaired to the lodgings of one of the officers' wives, and Elizabeth continued her walk alone, crossing field after field at a quick pace, jumping over stiles and springing over puddles with impatient activity, and finding herself at last within view of the house, with weary ankles, dirty stockings, and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise. She was shown into the breakfast-parlour, where all but Jane were assembled, and where her appearance created a great deal of surprise. That she should have walked three miles so early in the day, in such dirty weather, and by herself, was almost incredible to Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley; and Elizabeth was convinced that they held her in contempt for it.

When dinner was over, she returned directly to Jane, and Miss Bingley began abusing her as soon as she was out of the room. Her manners were pronounced to be very bad indeed, a mixture of pride and impertinence; she had no conversation, no style, no beauty. Mrs. Hurst thought the same, and added:
"She has nothing, in short, to recommend her, but being an excellent walker. I shall never forget her appearance this morning. She really looked almost wild."
"She did, indeed, Louisa. I could hardly keep my countenance. Very nonsensical to come at all! Why must she be scampering about the country, because her sister had a cold? Her hair, so untidy, so blowsy!"
"Yes, and her petticoat; I hope you saw her petticoat, six inches deep in mud, I am absolutely certain; and the gown which had been let down to hide it not doing its office."
"Your picture may be very exact, Louisa," said Bingley; "but this was all lost upon me. I thought Miss Elizabeth Bennet looked remarkably well when she came into the room this morning. Her dirty petticoat quite escaped my notice."
"You observed it, Mr. Darcy, I am sure," said Miss Bingley; "and I am inclined to think that you would not wish to see your sister make such an exhibition."
"Certainly not."
"To walk three miles, or four miles, or five miles, or whatever it is, above her ankles in dirt, and alone, quite alone! What could she mean by it? It seems to me to show an abominable sort of conceited independence, a most country-town indifference to decorum."
"It shows an affection for her sister that is very pleasing," said Bingley.
"I am afraid, Mr. Darcy," observed Miss Bingley in a half whisper, "that this adventure has rather affected your admiration of her fine eyes." "Not at all," he replied; "they were brightened by the exercise."

It's only just a hunch, but I gather from the above that Shaw did have P&P in mind as he wrote Pygmalion. I think he chose to send up these famous passages in P&P with a surprising yet oddly synchronous reversal, i.e., just as Eliza Bennet shows her disregard for snobbish notions of how a lady ought to get from here to there, so too does Eliza Doolittle shows her disregard for snobbish notions of how a lady ought to speak, even as she turns Eliza Bennet's travel choice topsy turvy, by expressing astonishment at the very notion that she might walk across a Park. Somehow, in echoing the snobbery of the Bingley sisters, Eliza nonetheless manages to thumb her nose at convention!

It could all be coincidence, but I don't think so, I think Shaw was being a very sly elf indeed.

At some point, I am going to make a more determined effort to sleuth that hunch out, and see if I can dig up some more evidence to support my claim that Pygmalion is, in part, midrash on Pride & Prejudice.

Just you wait, 'enry 'Higgins!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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