Forgive me if I take this occasion to celebrate a few different Elizas than just Miss Bennet, for today is Eliza Doolittle Day.
For those unfamiliar with this often overlooked holiday, it is a reference to the musical My Fair Lady, based on George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, which in turn is based on a beautiful myth recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Pygmalion is a sculptor who falls in love with his own creation. After praying to Venus to help him find a real woman as perfect as the statue, it comes to life, and they basically live happily ever after. Shaw’s version is tad bit more complex. Professor Henry Higgins, played by Rex Harrison in the movie, is a massive phonetics geek. There’s really no better way to put it. For fun he records accents, and it is when eavesdropping one rainy night outside of Covent Gardens that he meets Eliza Doolittle, a cockney flower girl. Eliza is played by Audrey Hepburn in the film, magnificently, I believe, but it is not her voice during the songs – that’s a rather sad tale for both Audrey, Marni Nixon, who sang the numbers, and Julie Andrews, who originated the role on Broadway opposite Harrison. Anyway, Higgins makes a wager with his buddy that with six months of lessons, he can pass Eliza, “this guttersnipe,” off as “a duchess at an embassy ball.” I do not want to reveal the entire story just in case, dear reader, you have perchance never seen this remarkable film. If not, please do so! It’s far too good to miss. In the meantime, here’s the scene in which the 20th of May is codified for all time as ‘Liza Doolittle Day by an imaginary King Edward VII. It takes place early in Eliza’s lessons, and she has spent the last several days strapped to a machine that monitors her breathing while pronouncing the letter A over and over and over again. So she’s feeling rebellious. Enjoy.
And now back to Austen.
Have you ever read Henry and Eliza: a short, wildly farcical story she wrote sometime between the ages of 12 and 15? I discussed it in detail a few years back on my blog (you can read the post here), so I will not offer additional commentary at this time. Instead, for your delectation and in honor of the holiday, I will transcribe it here, spelling idiosyncrasies and all, from my Oxford World’s Classics edition of Catherine and Other Writings. For those unfamiliar with Austen’s juvenilia, be warned: young Jane had a keen sense of the absurd. She was also wickedly funny. The names Henry and Eliza are taken from her brother and cousin, who would someday marry. As you will see, the story is really Eliza’s. Henry’s part in it is rather short-lived.
Henry and Eliza
Is humbly dedicated to Miss Cooper by her obedient Humble Servant
As Sir George and Lady Harcourt were superintending the Labours of their Haymakers, rewarding the industry of some by smiles of approbation, and punishing the idleness of others, by a cudgel, they perceived lying closely concealed beneath the thick foliage of a Haycock, a beautifull little Girl not more than 3 months old.
Touched with the enchanting Graces of her face and delighted with the infantine tho’ sprightly answers she returned to their many questions, they resolved to take her home and, having no Children of their own, to educate her with care and cost.
Being good People themselves, their first and principal Care was to incite in her a Love of Virtue and a Hatred of Vice, in which they so well succeeded (Eliza having a natural turn that way herself) that when she grew up, she was the delight of all who knew her.
Beloved by Lady Harcourt, adored by Sir George and admired by all the World, she lived in a continued course of uninterrupted Happiness, till she had attained her eighteenth year, when happening one day to be detected in stealing a banknote of 50£, she was turned out of doors by her inhuman Benefactors. Such a transition to one who did not possess so noble and exalted a mind as Eliza, would have been Death, but she, happy in the conscious knowledge of her own Excellence, amused herself, as she sate beneath a tree with making and singing the following Lines.
Though misfortunes my footsteps may ever attend
I hope I shall never have need of a Freind
as an innocent Heart I will ever preserve
and will never from Virtue’s dear boundaries swerve.
Having amused herself some hours, with this song and her own pleasing reflections, she arose and took the road to M., a small market town, of which place her most intimate freind kept the Red Lion.
To this freind she immediately went, to whom having recounted her late misfortune, she communicated her wish of getting into some family in the capacity of Humble Companion.
Mrs Wilson, who was the most amiable creature on earth, was no sooner acquainted with her Desire, than she sat down in the Bar and wrote the following Letter to the Dutchess of F., the woman whom of all others, she most Esteemed.
‘To the Dutchess of F.’
Receive into your Family, at my request a young woman of unexceptionable Character, who is so good as to choose your Society in preference to going to Service. Hasten, and take her from the arms of your
The Dutchess, whose freindship for Mrs Wilson would have carried her any lengths, was overjoyed at such an opportunity of obliging her and accordingly sate out immediately on the receipt of her letter for the red Lion, which she reached the same Evening. The Dutchess of F. was about 45 and a half; Her passions were strong, her freindships firm and her Enmities, unconquerable. She was a widow and had only one Daughter who was on the point of marriage with a young Man of considerable fortune.
The Dutchess no sooner beheld our Heroine than throwing her arms around her neck, she declared herself so much pleased with her, that she was resolved they never more should part. Eliza was delighted with such a protestation of freindship, and after taking a most affecting leave of her dear Mrs Wilson, accompanied her grace the next morning to her seat in Surry.
With every expression of regard did the Dutchess introduce her to Lady Harriet, who was so much pleased with her appearance that she besought her, to consider her as her Sister, which Eliza with the greatest Condescension promised to do.
Mr Cecil, the Lover of Lady Harriet, being often with the family was often with Eliza. A mutual Love took place and Cecil having declared his first, prevailed on Eliza to consent to a private union, which was easy to be effected, as the Dutchess’s chaplain being very much in love with Eliza himself, would they were certain do anything to oblige her.
The Dutchess and Lady Harriet being engaged one evening to an assembly, they took the opportunity of their absence and were united by the enamoured Chaplain.
When the Ladies returned, their amazement was great at finding instead of Eliza the following Note.
We are married and gone.
Henry & Eliza Cecil.’
Her Grace as soon as she had read the letter, which sufficiently explained the whole affair, flew into the most violent passion and after having spent an agreable half hour, in calling them by all the shocking Names her rage could suggest to her, sent out after them 300 armed Men, with orders not to return without their Bodies, dead or alive; intending that if they should be brought to her in the latter condition to have them put to Death in some torturelike manner, after a few years Confinement.
In the mean time Cecil and Eliza continued their flight to the Continent, which they judged to be more secure than their native Land, from the dreadfull effects of the Dutchess’s vengeance, which they had so much reason to apprehend.
In France they remained 3 years, during which time they became the parents of two Boys, and at the end of it Eliza became a widow without any thing to support either her or her Children. They had lived since their Marriage at the rate of 18,000£ a year, of which Mr Cecil’s estate being rather less than the twentieth part, they had been able to save but a trifle, having lived to the utmost extent of their Income.
Eliza, being perfectly conscious of the derangement in their affairs, immediately on her Husband’s death set sail for England, in a man of War of 55 Guns, which they had built in their more prosperous Days. But no sooner had she stepped on Shore at Dover, with a Child in each hand, than she was seized by the officers of the Dutchess, and conducted by them to a snug little Newgate of their Lady’s which she had erected for the reception of her own private Prisoners.
No sooner had Eliza entered her Dungeon than the first thought which occurred to her, was how to get out of it again.
She went to the Door; but it was locked. She looked at the Window; but it was barred with iron; disappointed in both her expectations, she dispaired of effecting her Escape, when she fortunately perceived in a Corner of her Cell, a small saw and Ladder of ropes. With the saw she instantly went to work and in a few weeks had displaced every Bar but one to which she fastened the Ladder.
A difficulty then occurred which for some time, she knew not how to obviate. Her Children were too small to get down the Ladder by themselves, nor would it be possible for her to take them in her arms, when she did. At last she determined to fling down all her Cloathes, of which she had a large Quantity, and then having given them strict Charge not to hurt themselves, threw her Children after them. She herself with ease discended by the Ladder, at the bottom of which she had the pleasure of finding her little boys in perfect Health and fast asleep.
Her wardrobe she now saw a fatal necessity of selling, both for the preservation of her Children and herself. With tears in her eyes, she parted with these last reliques of her former Glory, and with the money she got for them, bought others more usefull, some playthings for Her Boys and a gold Watch for herself.
But scarcely was she provided with the above-mentioned necessaries, than she began to find herself rather hungry, and had reason to think, by their biting off two of her fingers, that her Children were much in the same situation.
To remedy these unavoidable misfortunes, she determined to return to her old freinds, Sir George and Lady Harcourt, whose generosity she had so often experienced and hoped to experience as often again.
She had about 40 miles to travel before she could reach their hospitable Mansion, of which having walked 30 without stopping, she found herself at the Entrance of a Town, where often in happier times, she had accompanied Sir George and Lady Harcourt to regale themselves with a cold collation at one of the Inns.
The reflections that her adventures since the last time she had partaken of these happy Junketings, afforded her, occupied her mind, for some time, as she sate on the steps at the door of a Gentleman’s house. As soon as these reflections were ended, she arose and determined to take her station at the very inn, she remembered with so much delight, from the Company of which, as they went in and out, she hoped to receive some Charitable Gratuity.
She had but just taken her post at the Innyard before a Carriage drove out of it, and on turning the Corner at which she was stationed, stopped to give the Postilion an opportunity of admiring the beauty of the prospect. Eliza then advanced to the carriage and was going to request their Charity, when on fixing her Eyes on the Lady, within it, she exclaimed,
To which the lady replied,
‘Yes Madam it is the wretched Eliza herself.’
Sir George, who was also in the Carriage, but too much amazed to speek, was proceeding to demand an explanation from Eliza of the Situation she was then in, when Lady Harcourt in transports of Joy, exclaimed.
‘Sir George, Sir George, she is not only Eliza our adopted Daughter, but our real Child.’
‘Our real Child! What, Lady Harcourt, do you mean? You know you never even was with child. Explain yourself, I beseech you.’
‘You must remember Sir George, that when you sailed for America, you left me breeding.’
‘I do, I do, go on, dear Polly.’
‘Four months after you were gone, I was delivered of this Girl, but dreading your just resentment at her not proving the Boy you wished, I took her to a Haycock and laid her down. A few weeks afterwards, you returned, and fortunately for me, made no enquiries on the subject. Satisfied within myself of the wellfare of my Child, I soon forgot I had one, insomuch that when, we shortly after found her in the very Haycock, I had placed her, I had no more idea of her being my own, than you had, and nothing I will venture to say would have recalled the circumstance to my remembrance, but my thus accidentally hearing her voice, which now strikes me as being the very counterpart of my own Child’s.’
‘The rational and convincing Account you have given of the whole affair,’ said Sir George, ‘leaves no doubt of her being our Daughter and as such I freely forgive the robbery she was guilty of.’
A mutual Reconciliation then took place, and Eliza, ascending the Carriage with her two Children returned to that home from which she had been absent nearly four years.
No sooner was she reinstated in her accustomed power at Harcourt Hall, than she raised an Army, with which she entirely demolished the Dutchess’s Newgate, snug as it was, and by that act, gained the Blessings of thousands, and the Applause of her own Heart.
Did you enjoy the story, or are you horrified? Both reactions are valid. I think it’s hilarious. It has long been one of my favorites from Austen’s juvenilia. If you are interested in reading more of her early writings, please come join us on Wednesdays this month and next at The Writer’s Block, where we are reading and discussing Lady Susan, the short novel of letters that is the premise for the new film, Love and Friendship.
Happy Eliza Doolittle Day! It is a particularly special day in my house: do you know why? Try to guess my daughter’s name.
Need the perfect holiday gift for the Miss Doolittle in your life? Check out these My Fair Lady paper dolls: https://www.etsy.com/listing/97877470/my-fair-lady-paper-doll.