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  • The Rain in Spain
  • George Watson (bio)

The whole strength of England, George Bernard Shaw once remarked, is that most people are snobs.

That sums up what is often taken for granted, and it masks two assumptions seldom brought to light. One is that it is silly or worse to be a snob; the other is that only the English do it—or do it well. There are foreign lands that use the word gentleman as if they had neither the word nor the thing, though they have both, and for as long as anyone can remember England has been the whipping boy of the world for those who seek moral credit by claiming to treat everyone alike.

Shaw had already noticed plenty of snobbery in his native Dublin, as Oscar Wilde did before him, before he settled in London at the age of twenty in 1876, and he speaks of it in his letters—but not in his plays and prefaces, in which he nails the English to the wall again and again as class-ridden nincompoops. Just before the First World War he wrote Pygmalion, a play the fifties musical My Fair Lady was based on; and both play and musical hammer home the point that to promote yourself from the lower orders in English society you have to change your accent, and that to change it you need a lot of technical training by a phonetician like Professor Henry Higgins. "The thing has to be done scientifically," Shaw says in his preface, "or the last state of the aspirant may be worse than the first." Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, the cockney girl, chant a vowel-exercise about the rain in Spain that stays mainly in the plain, until the flower girl who must some day pass as a lady finally gets it right. Higgins is triumphant: "By George, she's got it."

"Bernard Shaw is greatly improved by music," T. S. Eliot remarked to Rex Harrison after the first London night of My Fair Lady, but the musical is no less emphatic about snobbery than Pygmalion. Enlightened societies everywhere claim to behave otherwise. In "Do We Have a Class Society?" in We Write for Our Own Time (selected essays from the Virginia Quarterly Review), Henry Steele Commager patriotically claims that the whole concept of class is un-American, belonging as it does to the Old World, and speaks ominously of the English as being branded at birth on the tongue. The article first appeared in 1961, at a time when President John F. Kennedy's Harvard accent was exciting comment but before President George W. Bush's version of Texan was widely known, and its patriotism is impressive. Mark Twain knew better, and in an explanatory note at the start of Huckleberry Finn in 1884 he itemizes the several kinds of Missouri accent used by his characters, black and white, in case anyone should think they were all trying to talk alike and not succeeding. Regionally defined accents [End Page 483] with implications of status are commonplace in the wider world, and most people who choose to switch accents neither use nor need a phonetician like Higgins. In professional life, especially, it is so common to switch that you sometimes ponder the significance of staying as you are. I recall an incident in an Australian university when a student production was being cast; it called for a character with an Australian accent, which proved astonishingly hard to fill. But then anyone aspiring to a career in theater is likely to use the standard of Received Pronunciation in an audition unless told otherwise. Accent change is nothing to be embarrassed about. It amounts to a freedom to reinvent yourself on the threshold of adult life, and most people do it readily and without help. It is fun, after all, to be anyone you want to be—as the Germans say, Stadtluft macht frei.

Not everyone, fortunately, is a dogmatic egalitarian. Gladstone publicly called himself an inequalitarian, a word he claimed to have invented, though it was not speech he mainly had in mind, arguing that if equality ever came to England he would be in favor of abolishing...


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pp. 483-489
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