When Eliza Doolittle in the musical version of Bernard Shaw's play, Pygmalion, first appears on screen after her altercation with Professor Higgings she is singing 'All I want is a room somewhere'. What she wants, it seems, is a place of her own, where she can sit down after a day's work without having her earnings taken from her, or without being shoved out of the way by parent, step-parent, or sibling – and where she can eat chocolate. But the smiling face of Audrey Hepburn, together with the Technicolor quality of the film suggests that she wants something more: a home with a family of a her own, a home where she is no longer poor, and no longer has to go out to the streets to work, but can be a proper, respectable woman.
At the end of the play, she has achieved some of this: she has a home and a flower shop with a husband she has chosen for herself. However, she has disappointed her maker, Professor Higgins, who would have liked to keep her to himself, offering her his home to share (why doesn't she just move her husband into her room on Walpole street, as she would a piece of furniture?), or indeed her writer, Shaw, who suggests, by telling us how both her marriage and her business turn out to be unprofitable, her choice was a mistake, not ambitious enough – she has failed to achieve independence, to fly away, and insofar as Higgins was the one charged with bringing her to life, it is also his failure. Eliza has settled down, and she has settled down, after all the promise of her transformation, for very little – she lacks enthusiasm about her husband and her job, and is perhaps more concerned still with the lives of Prof Higgins and the Colonel than with her own. On the other hand, she has successfully escaped from the (tyrannical) meddling hands of her father and Prof Higgins, and that was perhaps the best chance for independence she had, figuring out that it was harder to interfere with a married woman than with a single one. Having her own home, away from Walpole place, meant that she had a chance at becoming her own person, even if she had fewer tools at her disposal for self-development.
Where, in the coming to life of a character, the reaching for independence, should the getting of a home figure? And why should it figure at all – can one not break away from interference without settling (as indeed, Eliza's sister in law, Clara, ends up doing)? Can one not be a fully developed human being without having a home?
The question is fraught, not just because of the enormous power the idea of the home has on us, but because depending on our answer, we may exclude ways of flourishing that do not fall within the 'domestic norm', or at the very least, marginalize them, because we think that domesticity is the key to human growth and flourishing. And this is what I'm going to be working on, so watch this space!
This is where I blog about my new book project (under contract with OUP): a history of the philosophy of the home and domesticity, from the perspective of women philosophers.