Julie Taddeo, visiting associate professor of history at the University of Maryland, spoke to the cast and core staff of My Fair Lady last week. Aiming to give people a social context for the years leading up to the First World War, the era in which the musical takes place, in London, Taddeo spoke about class, social mobility, and sexuality. Some of her starkest insights into the musical and its era, however, dealt with money.
Taddeo, a scholar of Victorian and Edwardian society in the United Kingdom, said that a flower girl like the show’s Eliza Doolittle would have earned around 10 pounds a year. Translation to today’s money: around 1000 pounds a year (1,380 dollars), a figure that caused a few mild gasps among the actors, who, like most residents of a metropolis, could not imagine surviving on that income. Alfred P. Doolittle, Eliza’s father, got better news. When an American philanthropist dies and leaves him 4,000 pounds a year, he has become the beneficiary of 400,000 pounds in 2018 currency – around 552,000 dollars.
How much of that half-million would have been subject to income tax wasn’t clear: Taddeo didn’t delve into the history of that tax in the UK, which is extremely complicated. She did illuminate the situation of the poor in London in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. The percentage of the city classed as impoverished was around 50 percent, and there was no significant social safety net until Parliament established an old-age pension in 1908 and unemployment insurance in 1911.
A Fabian socialist, George Bernard Shaw, whose Pygmalion is the basis for My Fair Lady, had argued for a safety net, as well as for women’s suffrage. Taddeo spoke insightfully about Shaw -- not surprising, perhaps, when you consider that she is the author of Lytton Strachey and the Search for Modern Sexual Identity, and the best-known biographer of Strachey is Michael Holroyd, whose other standard biography (four volumes) is of Shaw.
Taddeo spoke of Shaw’s contempt of the distinction, common in London in Victorian and Edwardian times and, in fact, dating to the Elizabethans, between “deserving poor” and “undeserving poor.” This distinction, Taddeo said, relates to the institution of the workhouse – a place where paupers would be incarcerated and made to work. A poor law passed in 1834 had not only established an extensive system of workhouses but had made legal the distinction between deserving and undeserving poor.
Taddeo spoke about the rigidity of the British class system, and the perils of changing one’s status. Social mobility was possible, she said, but even with education – in school or through private tuition, such as Eliza had – such mobility was somewhat unusual. And it wasn’t just the working class who were subject to a change in station. Upper-middle class members such as the Higginses might have lost their entrée to the aristocracy (invitations to Ascot and to glittering balls) if one of their members had made an unfortunate marriage.
I cannot in a blog entry provide an exhaustive summary of Taddeo’s talk, which also included questions from her rehearsal-room audience, but I will, before closing, mention her discussion of flower girls in early-20th-century London. There were two kinds: those who sold posies and those who sold posies and something else. (With few employment opportunities other than domestic service, poor women often became prostitutes, whose numbers in Edwardian London were huge though hard to quantify.) Eliza insists frequently that she is “a good girl” so that she is not taken for a “something else” kind of flower seller. Violets are all that she purveys.
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.