Author pho­to by Nas­son Boroumand

Jen­nieke Cohen’s My Fine Fel­low: A Deli­cious Entan­gle­ment was a 2023 Syd­ney Tay­lor Sil­ver Medal win­ner in the young adult cat­e­go­ry. Emi­ly Schnei­der spoke with the author about how she cre­at­ed this high­ly orig­i­nal work based on Pyg­malion and My Fair Lady, includ­ing Jew­ish themes and char­ac­ters. This inter­view is part of the Syd­ney Tay­lor Blog Award Tour. Find the full STBA blog tour sched­ule here

Emi­ly Schnei­der: I’m very pleased to be able to speak with you about My Fine Fel­low. I’m sure our read­ers know that a pop­u­lar trend in young adult lit­er­a­ture is mod­ern­ized ver­sions of clas­sic books, includ­ing Anne of Green Gables, Lit­tle Women, and The Secret Gar­den, usu­al­ly with updat­ed lan­guage and focus­ing on an explo­ration of con­tem­po­rary issues. My Fine Fel­low is a bit dif­fer­ent. It’s based on George Bernard Shaw’s play, Pyg­malion and the musi­cal My Fair Lady. You set it in an ear­li­er era, and intro­duce a cen­tral Jew­ish char­ac­ter along with the theme of anti­semitism. What inspired you to write this tru­ly orig­i­nal novel?

Jen­nieke Cohen: Well, thank you. I’ve always loved My Fair Lady, and I even­tu­al­ly start­ed look­ing at the source mate­r­i­al, Pyg­malion, and some of Shaw’s oth­er plays as well. And because My Fair Lady is one of my favorite musi­cals, I thought nobody had real­ly done this. No one had redone it, at least not in the way that I envi­sioned. I thought I could do this in a total­ly dif­fer­ent way. I could set it in a time peri­od that’s not the orig­i­nal one, but not con­tem­po­rize it either. I was also read­ing a book called The Jews of Geor­gian Eng­land by Tom M. Endel­man, and I thought, why don’t I set it dur­ing the 1830s, and why don’t I fig­ure out a way to have a Jew­ish character?

Because being a Jew, I real­ly want­ed to talk about my expe­ri­ence, although, obvi­ous­ly, the 1830s is not my era. How­ev­er, I thought it would be a good time peri­od for the book; it’s not used very often in YA lit­er­a­ture. All of these fac­tors com­bined, and then I decid­ed I want­ed to gen­der swap it as well so that I could have the girls be the ones with agency, the ones to teach this boy, Eli­jah Lit­tle, how to become a gen­tle­man chef, as I do in the book.

ES: You begin with a rel­a­tive­ly obscure coun­ter­fac­tu­al of his­to­ry. The book’s premise is that Princess Char­lotte, daugh­ter of George IV, sur­vived and became Queen. In that case, Queen Vic­to­ria and the roy­al fam­i­ly of today would not nec­es­sar­i­ly have inher­it­ed the throne.

JC: I did­n’t want to write anoth­er Vic­to­ri­an nov­el where the women were put upon. Even in Regency nov­els, that’s often the case. And so I thought, is there a way that I can devi­ate from his­to­ry? I picked this spe­cif­ic point where the time­line could split. Because the death of the pop­u­lar Princess Char­lotte was such a huge event, some­thing we as Amer­i­cans don’t gen­er­al­ly know or care about, it gave me license to cre­ate a new world. It was also a way to give the girls more agency, as well as a bet­ter basis to have more diver­si­ty in the book, which was impor­tant to me. 

ES: Do read­ers who bring knowl­edge of the sources or the his­to­ry have a dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ence read­ing the novel?

JC: Read­ers famil­iar with My Fair Lady and Pyg­malion get some in-jokes, but most read­ers who relate to the book have not actu­al­ly brought that pri­or knowl­edge to it. I do hope that it might pique their inter­est in watch­ing the musi­cal or read­ing the play.

ES: Speak­ing of the sources, Hele­na Hig­gins and Pene­lope Pick­er­ing are loose­ly mod­eled on Shaw’s char­ac­ters and on their coun­ter­parts from My Fair Lady, but you haven’t only changed their gen­der, you’ve made their per­son­al­i­ties some­what dif­fer­ent as well.

JC: Hele­na is based on Hen­ry Hig­gins. She’s relat­ed to his arche­type, but she does also have to devi­ate from it. She can’t just be him as a woman, that would be ridicu­lous. There are class dynam­ics at play as well as gen­der in the way that she treats Eli­jah. She’s in the aris­to­crat­ic class, and Pene­lope is from the gen­try. And then, of course, Eli­jah’s a mem­ber of the low­er classes.

Pene­lope is obvi­ous­ly based on Colonel Pick­er­ing, who is very much a yes-man to Hen­ry Hig­gins in the orig­i­nal. I want­ed Pene­lope to be her own per­son, the type of girl who’s hap­py to get along, but when some­thing that she feels strong­ly about real­ly gets to her, she will stand up and say, this is wrong.” 

ES: Anoth­er way that the book stands apart from the trend is in your use of lan­guage. Most updat­ed ver­sions of clas­sics, by def­i­n­i­tion, use mod­ern­ized lan­guage. Instead, you have an ongo­ing dia­logue with Shaw’s lan­guage. Some­times you quote him direct­ly. Some­times you allude to the play or the musi­cal, in a way that’s fun­ny or some­times crit­i­cal. That had to be one of the most chal­leng­ing parts of writ­ing the book.

JC: It actu­al­ly seemed to come pret­ty eas­i­ly – it was fun! I was pulling in pieces from the orig­i­nal, then turn­ing them on their head a lit­tle bit, and throw­ing in some mod­ern sen­si­bil­i­ties, while still try­ing to keep the lan­guage of that era. I was read­ing a lot of British lit­er­a­ture, but at the same time lis­ten­ing to audio of Wilkie Collins’ nov­els, and those by oth­er Vic­to­ri­ans. All of that per­co­lat­ed in my brain. And I want­ed to have an omni­scient nar­ra­tor too, as they do in many Vic­to­ri­an novels. 

And so I thought, is there a way that I can devi­ate from his­to­ry? I picked this spe­cif­ic point where the time­line could split.

ES: The char­ac­ters are so dis­tinc­tive in the book. Eli­jah Lit­tle is mod­eled on Eliza Doolit­tle in the orig­i­nal. I find him to be one of the most inter­est­ing Jew­ish male char­ac­ters in YA fic­tion. Tell us how you came up with the idea to make him Jew­ish, and to com­bine his iden­ti­ty with his class background.

JC: Ini­tial­ly I thought I was going to have him be the arche­type for my fam­i­ly, my ances­tors who came from Lithua­nia, Ukraine, and Belarus. And then, when I did more research, I real­ized these immi­grants did­n’t usu­al­ly trav­el to Britain at this time peri­od. I had to invent a dif­fer­ent back­sto­ry for him, which was per­fect­ly fine because it made him his own per­son, not just an homage to my fam­i­ly. I took a lot from my research into what Jews in that time peri­od would have dealt with, how they would have lived; that’s the one aspect of the book that is as close to his­tor­i­cal­ly accu­rate as pos­si­ble. Clear­ly, we’ve been deal­ing with prej­u­dice for­ev­er. But Eli­jah evolved into his own char­ac­ter. I had to go back in and fill out more scenes that would con­tribute to that, like his scene with the tailor.

ES: Mr. Ben­jamin is the old Jew­ish tai­lor who fits Eli­jah for the ele­gant clothes he will need to appear in soci­ety. He is one of my favorite char­ac­ters, and he rep­re­sents the oppo­site end of the age spec­trum. That was a ter­rif­ic scene.

JC: It was actu­al­ly a tough scene because I want­ed to get it right. Mr. Ben­jamin could­n’t be a car­i­ca­ture of a tai­lor from the 1830s. He had to be some­body real, and a great way to get a glimpse of Eli­jah’s par­ents – who had died – and also bring in a total­ly dif­fer­ent suc­cess­ful type of Jew­ish man rather than who Eli­jah was going to end up being. Mr. Ben­jamin may not attain that lev­el, but he is suc­cess­ful nonethe­less and hap­py with his life. I remem­ber as I was fin­ish­ing writ­ing that scene, I was cry­ing a bit as I was writ­ing it, part­ly because of its father-son dynamics.

ES: Anoth­er depar­ture from the orig­i­nal sources is the rela­tion­ship between men and women. We talk about the objec­ti­fy­ing male gaze, but in your nov­el you replace that with a female gaze. Pene­lope is attract­ed to Eli­jah. She def­i­nite­ly looks at him with fas­ci­na­tion, but also respect.

JC: It was impor­tant for me to have them end up as equals, not as men­tor and stu­dent. The roman­tic ten­sion between Hen­ry Hig­gins and Eliza Doolit­tle is unequal, and not ide­al for me per­son­al­ly. In the orig­i­nal, Colonel Pick­er­ing was always much more of a gen­tle­man toward Eliza than Hen­ry Hig­gins was. I chose to take that fur­ther and have them end up hav­ing a real rela­tion­ship and a real under­stand­ing of the minds. 

ES: Eli­jah is Jew­ish, and Penelope’s back­ground also mar­gin­al­izes her with­in Eng­lish soci­ety and forces her to be secre­tive about her iden­ti­ty. Could you speak to that?There’s a major focus on Jew­ish themes in the book, but there are also explo­rations of oth­er kinds of racism and prej­u­dice that encroach on peo­ple’s lives. 

JC: I made Pene­lope Fil­ip­ina and British, and I’m also half Fil­ip­ina. It was impor­tant for me to include that in the book authen­ti­cal­ly. Because she is not white, she does not exact­ly hide who she is, but her par­ents have sent her to Eng­land to be able to be suc­cess­ful and to do what she wants with her life. They stay away to pro­tect her iden­ti­ty, and she’s in Eng­land all on her own, fig­ur­ing out how to be an adult. Hele­na, mean­while, and every­one else who she lives near and asso­ciates with, just assume that she’s Cau­casian. Pene­lope does­n’t want to deny who she is, but she also wants to avoid the con­se­quences of racism. I did want to bring in the entire con­tin­u­um of racism and prej­u­dice. Hele­na, a char­ac­ter who devel­ops through­out the book, does­n’t quite get it, and she has to wrap her head around what it means to have friends who are not the same as every­body else. 

ES: Fem­i­nism is at the novel’s core. Read­ers might check Wikipedia to look up the Free­dom of Female Edu­ca­tion Bill that is referred to sev­er­al times, but you invent­ed it! It’s part of the book’s coun­ter­fac­tu­al element.

JC: I had to cre­ate this good rea­son for women to be able to have pro­fes­sions. Soci­ety does not change overnight; just the change of a monarch would not enable women to have dif­fer­ent pro­fes­sions. I cre­at­ed a more con­crete rea­son for it in the edu­ca­tion bill, mean­ing that girls could be edu­cat­ed in careers that had been his­tor­i­cal­ly restrict­ed to men. The changed time­line gave me the license to do that.

ES: The career you empha­size is the culi­nary arts. Your dis­cus­sions of food in the book are high­ly detailed, but instead of val­i­dat­ing snob­bery about food, you democ­ra­tize the art of cook­ing, empha­siz­ing its mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism. Every char­ac­ter has a spe­cif­ic rela­tion­ship to food. You describe one of Elijah’s cre­ations as a stuffed bread in the shape of a round par­cel filled with pick­led beef, car­away, and cab­bage, and topped with caramelized onions.” The ref­er­ence to the hum­ble bread shaped like a par­cel is as impor­tant as the list of deli­cious ingredients.

JC: I’ve been immersed in cook­ing since I was a child. I would watch PBS and write down recipes from the TV shows, and then I’d try to recre­ate them, some­times more suc­cess­ful­ly than oth­er times. With the rise of the Food Net­work and British cook­ing shows, every­thing became more avail­able. I real­ly have grown up trav­el­ing with my par­ents, eat­ing foods from all dif­fer­ent cul­tures, and I want­ed to show­case that in the book. So many foods and oth­er tra­di­tions over­lap. I had to do some deep dives in com­ing up with Elijah’s dishes.

ES: Your char­ac­ters are not always opti­mistic about that embrace of dif­fer­ences. Eli­jah is often dis­cour­aged. Your nar­ra­tor cap­tures the cyn­i­cism of a Jew­ish man who is con­stant­ly aware of prej­u­dice: He still believed more peo­ple exist­ed in the world who did­n’t ask ques­tions, not because they did­n’t know to ask them. No, they did­n’t ask because they only want­ed the answers they cre­at­ed in their minds.” At the end of My Fine Fel­low, do you think read­ers will share Elijah’s pessimism? 

JC: This was a book that had to end hap­pi­ly. But I don’t think Eli­jah believes that all the prej­u­dice has gone away, and I don’t think the read­er should think that either. He’s only one per­son; maybe his life and Mr. Benjamin’s are good, but there are many oth­er peo­ple whose lives have not improved. Maybe Eli­jah’s suc­cess­es at the end of the book could be the first step, lead­ing to some­thing more for oth­er peo­ple as well.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.