In “I Could Have Danced All Night,” the beautiful ingenue Eliza Doolittle was under a dreamy princess-like hypnosis as she glided around Professor Higgins’ house. Eliza, the gutter snake that crawled out of the sewers and gutters of London with her thick cockney accent was now transforming into a beautiful “Duchess.”
She lovingly visioned herself to become the beacon muse of the ball, her triumphant Cinderella moment in which she would glide on the dance floor with the man she saw as her savior, her mentor. But the problem with My Fair Lady is that is also revealed at this moment that Eliza sees Higgins as her lover, even if the man does nothing but berate and starve her. It was a Beauty and the Beast match, a mixture of an Electra (aka daddy issues for the slow as molasses literary types) and a Stockholm Syndrome complex.
Eliza develops a sort of infatuation for the man who plucked her out of the gutter [as cruel as he is] but by the end of the movie [and book/play], Eliza is supposed to have grown out of it and is left with a bittersweet affection.
As for Henry Higgins, he is depicted in all versions as having a bit of a mother-complex, in that all women are forever vastly inferior to his mother. He has never and will never be physically interested in a female, let alone romantically and that suits him just fine. His affection for Eliza is one of familiar comfort and that of an egotistical creator who wishes to possess and admire his work for purely selfish gratification, foregoing the feelings of said ‘creation’.
The fact that this went over to the head of so many people from the start is baffling to me because I saw the complexity clear as day, but apparently, not many others did or have.
In the original play, Eliza definitely does NOT go back to Higgins. Shaw was very vocally against any romanticization of their relationship. He WROTE about this, making fun of what today we’d call “shippers”. As he writes, he made Higgins DELIBERATELY old and unattractive (hating on women really isn’t sexy, people, if Shaw knew it, why can’t we); he saw Freddy Eynsford-Hill as Eliza’s proper partner. Freddy adored her, Freddy was young and handsome and wanted to make babies with her, that’s what Shaw thought was a healthy, normal foundation for love. And he was bloody right.
Nor was this the first time he spoke out against this particular way of distorting his message, the same thing happened with The Devil’s Disciple. He was furious at the director who undermined his text (which was explicitly about how the main character did NOT have “feelings” for the woman), by having the actor stand behind her and kiss a strand of her hair as he was uttering the lines. Of course, the audience was going “aaaaaaaaaahh”. Shaw wanted to kill him.
G.B. Shaw has left no choice but to write a sequel of sorts and tack it on to the end of the published work a few years after it’s release. He explains why such a thing as a romantic or living relationship between Eliza and Higgins would never work and should never be and then says what happens to the characters after the events of the play in a couple of short sentences.
He ends with, “Eliza is still a part of Wimpole Street and she is still interested vaguely in Higgins, but she keeps him at a distance and holds his derision of Freddy to a minimum. She is also very much beloved by Colonel Pickering, and she returns his love. In Shaw’s words, Eliza “likes Freddy and she likes the Colonel; and she does not like Higgins and Mr. Doolittle. Galatea never does quite like Pygmalion: his relation to her is too godlike to be altogether agreeable.”
Regarding the ending – we can be fairly assumed that Higgins is not going to mistreat Eliza – either emotionally or physically. By the end of the movie he realizes just how much he cares for her, and it’s as much a shock to him as it is to anyone. A large part of his behavior during that devastating post-ball scene is because he’s experiencing feelings he doesn’t know how to deal with. It’s not that he’s a bad guy (despite his prickly demeanor), it’s just that he’s lived a very quiet, ordered life and is trying to cope with this new development. Like he says to Eliza, it’s not that he treats her badly, but whether she’s ever seen him treat anyone else better.
As to whether or not they end up together, Alan J. Lerner wrote a forward at the beginning of the script: “For the published version of Pygmalion, Shaw wrote a preface and an epilog which he called a sequel. I have omitted the preface because the information contained therein is less pertinent to My Fair Lady than it is to Pygmalion. I have omitted the sequel because in it Shaw explains how Eliza ends not with Higgins but with Freddy and – Shaw and Heaven forgive me! – I am not certain he is right.
Eliza deserved much better than Higgins. But Freddy was such a bore to her. Eliza should have taken action as a socialite that turns her new found fame into an entrepreneurial endeavor. Such as developing franchised flower shops around London and across the English Channel. Doolittle’s destiny should have become that of an Audrey Hepburn type. A beautiful face whose posh elegance graces the covers of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar while dominating the floral shop business. From there, Eliza takes her wealth and influence to become a humanitarian for those who were seen just like her. She should have been a brazen reinvention of the modern shopgirl. She empowers herself in the way no man has ever done before. Maybe she marries a stranger, the Prince of Transylvania himself, or any man that values her for her she is all on her own and not some muse he can redesign to his liking which is why Higgins does. He made her into his spitting image and that’s not love.
The way the film ends becomes a glorification of the submissive woman who changes herself for a man who belittles her because making yourself over is “fun and passionate.” It’s really the typical older wiser professor-young impressionable student romance. He gives her value in a way she has never experienced. Plus she always felt worthless to her father. He abandoned her and only came back for money and had no issue leaving her with Mr. Higgins who could have been treating her worse than he was and even came back not to rescue her from him but to actually ask for money for her. Pickering and Higgins even point out how neglectful that is and how they could have been like raping her or something. He doesn’t care and gets his money and leaves. So she sees Higgins as an older man that actually values her. Daddy issues. However, if the story continued on I am sure she would have left him at some point. She would grow up and not be able to stand him. He was incapable of being a good relationship.