To think, with the halter around my neck, for one minute, of La Belle Eliza

PICKERING. We're always talking Eliza. 

HIGGINS. Teaching Eliza. 

PICKERING. Dressing Eliza. 

MRS. HIGGINS. What! 

HIGGINS. Inventing new Elizas.

More than one person asked me, over the years, whether Eliza was named for Eliza Doolittle. Certainly more people asked me that than ever asked me if she was named for Almanzo Wilder’s dominating older sister Eliza Jane, which is a better guess. The implication was she was badly educated and needed an elocution course and a new wardrobe as well, which is right but rude, or that she could have been played by Audrey Hepburn past the age of six months, which is ridiculous. They expected to be told Yes but they had to learn to love being told No.

No: She was named for Morten de Coninck’s ship, La Belle Eliza, which he called after his sister Eliza, Eliza de Coninck; but to be clear, the cat was named after the boat and not the lady. Both of them are from Isak Dinesen’s The Supper at Elsinore, and in that story that Eliza says — after she and her sister Fanny are visited by their dead brother Morten, who was hanged by the neck until dead for his privateering, and who asked the frightened priest if he could get him only one more minute to live in, so that in that minute before the rope, he might think of La Belle Eliza, the terror of the seas, his beloved, “the little sea-eaglet who kept the tame birds on the stir.” — After he comes up from Hell to tell them this and some other gossip and has gone away again, Eliza says, the dead man’s sister says, in his words, staring straight ahead of her: 

To think, with the halter around my neck, for one minute of La Belle Eliza.

Eliza de Coninck is an old maid, as they called them, whose whole life had been spent suppressed and submerged, so to say; a woman held under water all that time with only one nostril above the air line that she might live.  So it is a great and consequential thing for her to discover that the whole time she thought she was living in this way, the boat Eliza was free and away, carrying strong men this way and that to do crimes here and other crimes there, all in her name and under her flag.

Anyhow, her name, and the name of my own Eliza, is Eliza. That boat that is her namesake had “a very small foresail with an unusually large topsail and a high boom,” and the same was true of the cat.  She had as well a bumpy nose and a big paw. She died this morning, in the flower of her middle age.

Morten says, when he tells his sisters he has come up from Hell, that he can come then because the Sound is frozen over: that is a rule. I don’t believe my Liza’s in Hell, not even to rule over it, but I wouldn’t worry if she were, she can handle herself any place she goes. When the Potomac freezes over next, I’ll look for her.