Everyone knows the story. George Bernard Shaw’s play about the Cockney flower-seller-turned-lady was made widely famous in popular culture by Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn in the musical “My Fair Lady.”
It’s the story of an “odd couple” of sorts. Professor Higgins, a gentleman, linguist, and scholar, who is sometimes harsh, prickly, rude and demanding decides to take on an unlikely student. The young woman is Eliza Doolittle, who knows the streets, has no manners, and can’t speak the Queen’s English. Higgins is reluctant at first, and seems to view his subject as if she is an insect in a glass to be dissected, as he attempts to teach her how to speak and how to become a lady. But depending on which version of the story you ascribe to, the curious thing that happens is that Eliza not only takes on a life of her own, but it appears that she begins to change Higgins just as much as he changes her.
The reference to “Pygmalion” goes back to ancient Greek mythology, retold by the Roman poet Ovid. So the story goes, a sculptor named Pygmalion had lost interest in the women on his island of Cyprus because Venus had seen their immorality, shamed them, and turned them to prostitution. An excerpt from Ovid’s Metamorphoses phrases it like this: “…they lost all power to blush, as the blood hardened in their cheeks, and only a small change turned them into hard flints.” Essentially these women of Cyprus had lost all warmth and turned to stone. This set the sculptor Pygmalion to create his own ideal woman out of marble, and one day found that he had fallen in love with his creation. The goddess Aphrodite, or Venus, had compassion on him, and made his statue come to life… with a kiss, the cold stone gradually turned into living flesh.
On my recent trip to London, I stumbled across a unique connection to the Pygmalion story during a visit to the beautiful and historic home of Sir Frederic Leighton. Leighton was a painter, sculptor, collector, President of the Royal Academy for many years, and generally a popular, famous and eccentric figure during the Victorian era. I wandered into his house in Holland Park and into a very interesting tour (consciously ignoring the fact that I was approximately 30 years younger than everyone else on the tour that afternoon.)
As a side note that is probably only of interest to people who are into art history, many think that Leighton’s art was associated with the avante-garde Pre-Raphaelite movement, which is actually not true. His style in later years contained similarities to pre-raphaelite work, and he was most certainly friends with the artists involved, but he was not an official member of the so-called “Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.” The pre-raphaelites were primarily interested in reforming art to a purer form that they believed existed prior to the classical ornate poses first introduced by Raphael. They loved intense colors, bold lines and rich detail. Leighton’s preferences were certainly very similar.
Leighton’s personal life was extremely private, he never married, and he left almost nothing behind that would give us a real clue as to who he really was. But what we do know is that he had an extremely active public life, was very popular, and that he took great care to build his image in London and fill his house with “sumptuousness and luxury.” It really is one of the most remarkable buildings that I have ever seen. He was a world traveler and collected a surprising variety of beautiful tiles from throughout the world, and the whole house is covered in richness and a peacock’s array of colors that must have been dazzling to guests. He was a good looking guy, and women reportedly threw themselves at him. However, there are no real records of a relationship with anyone, though, either with women or men.
Interestingly, the only room that is not decorated in splendor is his bedroom. It contains a single brass bed with a light bulb hanging over it. I am certainly no expert, but to me, this clue is telling: his exterior public image could perhaps not be more different from who he was privately.
All that said, the story I learned on the tour that fascinated me most was the story of Leighton and his preferred model and muse, Ada Alice Pullen (aka Dorothy Dene). This was perhaps one of the most significant relationships of Leighton’s life. Leighton, like many other artists of the day, always painted figures from the nude, and added draped clothing over the figures later. So, the modeling profession in the Victorian era attracted a special type of woman.
Ada was a firey redhead in her late twenties from the poor east end of London, who made money acting and posing for the artist community in West London. Leighton, now close to seventy, singled her out as the one woman “whose face and figure most closely tallied with his ideal.” Leighton began using Ada as a model for a great many of his paintings, and she would spend days and hours with him in his home posing. Her dream was to become a famous actress, and she eventually changed her name to Dorothy Dene and moved to West Kensington. Leighton, knowing that her Cockney accent, voice, and lack of training could become a detriment to her acting career, became a benefactor of sorts, paying for speaking, music, dance and etiquette lessons, and supporting her travel with acting companies.
When Leighton died in 1896, he left a small fortune to Dorothy and her sisters in his will. The tenderness between Leighton and Dene was seemingly quiet and understated, but deep. Dorothy kept acting for a short time, but died at a young age only three years after Leighton.
George Bernard Shaw, who knew both Sir Leighton and Dorothy, probably personally, even reviewed Dorothy in her role as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. He was likely very familiar with the London rumor mill prior to Leighton’s death, which had whispered that Leighton had scandalously fallen in love with his young muse. It was an intriguing and easy story to believe, since Leighton was unmarried and widely known to be her benefactor.
So did Dorothy Dene become the inspiration for Shaw’s character Eliza Doolittle? Was Sir Leighton the real Henry Higgins? What was the true nature of the relationship between Leighton and Dene? Or is that question even relevant or important? Romantic theories aside, it is clear that their relationship was one of the most meaningful of their lives. If their story echoes that of Pygmalion, perhaps it’s not as straightforward or black and white as it seems. Which was the piece of stone turned to flesh? Who was the sculptor, and who was the one who was changed? The wonderful thing about human relationships is that the line is always blurred, and that transformations are never one-way. Almost certainly, each one was changed by the other.