Pygmalion in the 21st Century

2 min read

A review by Suki Baynton

Pygmalion by Bernard Shaw

The copy of Pygmalion I chose, was the 1946 reprint that included over a hundred drawings by Feliks Topolski, specially published to commemorate Bernard Shaw’s ninetieth birthday. 

I honestly thought Pygmalion was a book I would pick up and hate. Beyond the vintage penguin cover and the musty, delicate pages, I was prepared to scoff and scowl my way through what I considered to be a frustrating representation of how women were viewed at the time (and at times still are viewed today) in society. 

I was sure I had studied another version of Pygmalion during my English Literature study many years ago, but as someone who reads a lot and has a memory like a sieve, I can never be sure. So not one to pass up the opportunity to be provoked by stereotypes and clichés and a chance to put the world to rights, I dived straight in.

I was drawn in unsuspectingly 

I was drawn in unsuspectingly, by Bernard Shaw’s preface; a brief pugnacious education on the history and current (1946) status of phonetics, nestled amongst an honest yet reverent tribute to Henry Sweet. This little addition was an early indication that language and phonetics were far more interesting to Shaw, than class and gender and it was refreshing. 

The title of Shaw's play is taken from the Greek mythological figure of Pygmalion, who creates a sculpture of his ideal woman and duly falls in love. Drawing this comparison tells us before we turn a page that our leading men, Higgins and Pickering will mould our protagonist Eliza, into their ideal lady, calling to question the idea femininity and gender and the unrealistic and unnatural expectations that society places on women. 

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A surprisingly enjoyable storyline

Pygmalion Bernard Shaw

What I actually found on those pages, however, was a surprisingly enjoyable storyline, reminiscent of a Sherlock Holmes and Watson dynamic. The dry subject matter punctuated by both strong male and female characters, managed to transcend both class and gender discussions into a romance about language and phonetics itself.   

Yes, I would like to see Eliza take on a fully independent life, without the need to choose from Freddy, her father or Mr. Higgins and to set off into the distance armed with her wit and in need of no men at all. We have to remind ourselves that as a story set in Victorian England, barely on the cusp of the suffragette movement and so although Eliza is greatly transformed over the course of the play, 20th century society was not ready for women to have real independence.

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I encourage you to pick this book up

So, I encourage you to pick this book up, or if like me, you think you may have studied the pages before, to revisit it. The subtitle,a romance in five acts, may just surprise you, as it did me, when you start to think the real romance is not between Eliza and Higgins, but rather between Shaw and phonetics. 

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