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IN MY FAIR LADY, Alfred P. Doolittle sings “Get Me to the Church on Time.” However, this signifies a marked turnaround from his being one of London’s “undeserving poor.” Henry Mayhew had documented London’s working classes back in the mid-1800s, and he got Doolittle precisely right. Or, rather, George Bernard Shaw knew his Mayhew when he composed the play Pygmalion, in 1913.
Here are Mayhew tidbits on London’s working classes and their views on matrimony or the lack thereof.
Doolittle’s Morality. Initially, dustman Doolittle is “up against middle-class morality for all the time.” At one point, he tried hitting up phonetician Professor Henry Higgins for offering daughter Eliza live-in tutoring: “I knew she had a career in front of ’er!”
Mayhew’s Norm. In Mayhew’s London, Henry Mayhew quoted a coster girl, one of London’s street sellers: “I dare say there ain’t ten out of a hundred gals what’s living with men, what’s been married Church of England fashion.”
“In Clerkenwell parish, however,” Mayhew wrote, “where the number of married couples is about a fifth of the whole, this difference is easily accounted for, as in Advent and Easter, the incumbent of that parish marries poor couples without a fee.”
“Of the rights of ‘legitimate’ or ‘illegitimate’ children,” Mayhew continued, “the costermongers understand nothing, and account it a mere waste of money and time to go through the ceremony of wedlock when a pair can live together, and be quite as well regarded by their fellows, without it. The married women associate with the unmarried mothers of families without the slightest scruple. There is no honour attached to the marriage state, and no shame to concubinage.”
On infidelity: “Neither are the unmarried women less faithful to their ‘partners’ than the married, but I understand that, of the two classes, the unmarried betray the most jealousy.”
On the World’s Oldest Profession. An old costermonger told Mayhew, “What I call the working girls are as industrious and as faithful to their mates than other poor working women. I never knew one of these working girls do wrong that way. They’re strong, hearty, healthy girls, and keep clean rooms. Why, there’s a number of men leave their stockmoney with their women, just taking out two or three shillings to gamble with and get drunk upon.”
Doolittle’s Downfall—or Elevation. Doolittle’s transformation arises from an unexpected inheritance: “The old bloke died,” Doolittle laments, “and left me four thousand pounds a year in his bloomin’ will. Who asked him to make a gentleman out of me?”
Doolittle says, “I was happy. I was free. I touched pretty nigh everyone for money when I wanted it, same as I touched him. Now I’m tied neck and heels, and everybody touches me.”
That is, as observed in cliffnotes.com, “The immoral blackmailer and pimp of the second act has now been forced into the role of a lecturer on moral reforms, and he must now adopt middle-class morality.”
He even agrees to marry Eliza’s mother. In a church yet. And sings of this while having a last fling at the pub. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2019