The myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, the statue he created and with which (or whom) he fell in love, has been resurrected often. While metamorphosis is a common motif in myths, this version recurs in romantic tales because falling in love is cast as a transformative experience. Not all retellings are entirely celebratory. George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion critiques the idea that a woman would love a man who wants her to fit his ideal. Yet My Fair Lady, the Broadway musical and movie adaptation(s) of the play, rejected Shaw’s anti-romance for a happier ending, and it’s this happier version of the story that’s been most influential in American romance media.
In the United States, the Pygmalion / Galatea story gets imbued with national ideals of self-improvement and class mobility. Hollywood has created its own versions (such as Pretty Woman), as have television (Beauty and the Geek) and romance fiction (e.g., Julie Anne Long’s To Love a Thief). One of the most interesting reworkings in fiction is Judith Ivory’s novel The Proposition (1999), which reverses the genders of creator and creation.
In Ivory’s re-telling, set in Victorian London, rat-catcher Mick Tremore is brought to linguist Lady Edwina Bollash by two brothers who claim that they enjoy betting on unlikely outcomes—in this case, whether Mick can be made to resemble a gentleman in a few weeks. (They hope to pass him off as an aristocrat’s long-lost heir.) Lady Edwina, one of the genteel poor, ekes out a living by teaching deportment and elocution to debutantes. Drawn to the project for personal and professional reasons, she becomes Pygmalion to Mick’s Cornish Galatea.
Coarse in language and profession, Mick is unashamed of his work, his upbringing, or his Cornish-Cockney dialect, which the novel stages in passages like these:
Now, where be the loo? I gotta shake ‘ands with an ol’ friend, if ye know what I mean. Blimey, but tea runs through a bloke. I don’t know ‘ow ye nobs do it.
After he is persuaded that the brothers’ lark is harmless and might help him financially, however, he agrees to listen to (most of) Edwina’s instructions and joins her efforts to smooth his rough edges to artful perfection. For once, it appears that the woman gets to act as the cultural sculptor.
Untraditional as the novel may seem, it retains the myth’s sexual politics. While Edwina distils a gentleman out of the rat-catcher, he teaches her to be—what else?—a desirable and desiring woman.
Emotionally and physically isolated since losing her father and inheritance, Edwina’s self-consciousness about her unfashionable body has made her reluctant to participate in society. Under Mick’s boisterous, sensual influence, however, she resembles a statue coming to life. Their tutoring sessions educate him in manners and speech, and her in becoming an uninhibited sexual being. When he takes her to his neighborhood tavern—a reversal of the posh gatherings in previous iterations of the myth—she eventually climbs on a table to dance with working class women. Drunk, partially undressed, and literally kicking up her heels, she has become flesh and blood.
Arguably, the Pygmalion myth romanticizes the idea that the “ideal woman” is one who conforms to male fantasy. In The Proposition, Ivory makes an attempt to restructure the myth, so that the novel’s climax does not involve just Edwina’s transformation but also that of Mick, whose newly-minted persona is put to the test at a prestigious ball. Does making the transformation mutual—or at least parallel—make the myth less problematic?
You’ll have to read to the novel to find out. . .
Jayashree Kamble is the recipient of the first Romance Writers of America academic research grant and author of "Patriotism, Passion, and PTSD: The Critique of War in Popular Romance Novels" in New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction.