As a British woman in the Edwardian era, I have to admit that at times I’ve been swept up in fantasies of Gilded Age splendor. Perhaps it was the allure of evening gowns and perfumed parlors that led me to Henry Higgins’s door for speech classes. It was certainly what made me stay.
But tonight, choked to the gills in Parisian satins, I can’t help but wonder whether I’ve made a huge mistake.
Just a few hours ago, after telling Higgins quite plainly he would “not be seeing me again,” I changed my mind and returned to his home anyway—so seductive was the offer of social and financial security. And yet, despite all we’ve been through, instead of greeting me with any hint of delight, the man just slumped into his chair and said, “Eliza, where the devil are my slippers?” He didn’t even look at me.
I feel like the last person in the world to realize this, but I should have chosen Freddy.
My reasons are myriad. Freddy:
- loves me
- is handsome
- can sing
- is my generation
- doesn’t encourage his staff to beat me
- brings me flowers
- hasn’t threatened repeatedly to throw me into the gutter
- enjoys my colloquialisms
- doesn’t call me silly girl, bilious pigeon, chicken cackling in a barn, squashed cabbage leaf, disgrace to noble architecture, an incarnate insult to the English language, liar, baggage, deliciously low, dirty, guttersnipe, draggle-tailed guttersnipe, heartless guttersnipe, barbarous wretch, “that thing,” “the thing,” presumptuous insect, the creature, infamous creature, irrational, exasperating-irritatating-vascillating-calculating-agitating-maddening-infuriating hag, fool, idiotic, impotent hussy, a millstone round my neck, owl sickened by a few days of my sunshine, hell-cat, and easy to forget.
Sure, Higgins and I did have some good times. Notably, there was that one evening when I had my first breakthrough and said “Spain” correctly. We all celebrated together, and—as I told the housemaids—I could’ve danced all night.
But if I’m honest with myself, I was too caught up in the opulent lifestyles of the men around me to see my own complicity in their oppressive system. I made life very hard for the servants that night, who had to clean up after me and get my drunk rump into bed. I could’ve danced all night, sure, but they had an eighteen-hour workday the next morning.
What does it say about me that he passed me off as a duchess at Buckingham Palace, but I don’t like who I am when I’m with him?
Recently, Higgins talked me out of marrying Freddy, because Freddy isn’t as wealthy as him and doesn’t know how to earn a living. But how did Henry Higgins earn his wealth? He’s old-money British upper-class, which means his fortune was likely stolen off the backs of murdered and oppressed people, looted from their possessions, and poached from their homelands’ natural resources.
I’m a good girl, I am, and so I don’t wanna earn my money the way people like him do.
And what will I be for Higgins beyond a plaything? It’s telling he overlooked the other lowly flower people for the one conventionally attractive soprano he knew could help him win a bet. Like so many rich white men before and after, he turned me into his own personal paper doll and managed to talk-sing himself into being the sympathetic protagonist of my story.
Respectfully, fixing my accent and teaching me how to walk in heels doesn’t meet my relational needs. I couldn’t have been clearer when I said that all I want is a room somewhere, with heat, a place to rest my legs, and a nice, gentle person who treats me well.
So how does it fit my vision to have my mouth stuffed with marbles as part of some sick phonetic kink by a patronizing, fascistic linguist who declares I should literally be hanged for not pronouncing “captain” exactly like him?
I’m upstairs in Higgins’s mansion now, taking off this couture hat he ordered for me that’s so big it could house a pauper, while that arrogant numbnut is down in his study, wearing his velvet smoking jacket, waiting for one of the dozen maids or me to fetch his shoes or pipe or some other nonsense he could easily get himself.
I reflect on my twenty-year-old face in the mirror—a face he grew accustomed to, and I don’t recognize anymore. I picture a life with him and shudder. I picture a life with Freddy and shudder less. But then my mind wanders even further…
I imagine the rain in Spain… or Hartford, Hereford, or Hampshire, where hurricanes hardly happen. I wonder what it would be like to live there instead. What eligible people I might meet.
Marriage to a rich man is a flower girl’s best option for security in this miserable, polluted city. So, of course, it was a relief when I realized I’d finally perfected my accent enough to attract such a person.
But maybe underneath all those vocal exercises, all that effort, all us flower girls really need is freedom over our lives.
Maybe freedom is the most loverly thing of all.