Book review: How to Create the Perfect Wife
Sarah Ditum on the incredible true story of Thomas Day, the 18th-century Englishman who tried to use the ideas of the Enlightenment to mould his ideal bride
How to Create the Perfect Wife by Wendy Moore (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
If you're a straight man with a terror of women that isn't quite strong enough to countermand your desire to get laid, there's a sub-cult for you. Pick-up artists promise to coach men in seduction, using science-ish concepts like neuro-linguistic programming and evolutionary psychology. But when it comes to the lady-hating through pseudo-rationalism, pick-up artists are amateurs. If you want to see this stuff done seriously, you need to track back to the 18th century and a curious figure called Thomas Day – an associate of Erasmus Darwin and an acolyte of Rousseau – who applied his supposedly enlightened methods to not just pick up the perfect woman, but create her.
The story of Day and his wife-in-training Sabrina is told by Wendy Moore in her book How to Create the Perfect Wife, and it's a truly extraordinary one. The amount of information that Moore has uncovered about Sabrina is impressive, given that Sabrina's wealth and origins mean she left very little paperwork in her wake. But one aspect of the extraordinariness is that this odd tale isn't thoroughly known already. Day was part of the intellectual and literary establishment of England in the 1700s, and he did not conceal his wife experiment from his friends. Consequently, Moore finds it directly echoed by novelists Maria Edgeworth and Fanny Burney (who both knew Day and his subject), adapted into fiction by Anthony Trollope, and perhaps the inspiration for Shaw's Pygmalion.
But the vanishing of Day's experiment in bride fashioning was also inevitable, given its scandalous nature. To start with, Day selected two girls from a foundling hospital and, under the cover that they would be apprenticed to his best friend Richard Lovell Edgeworth (father of Maria), kept them with him, renamed them and subjected them to a programme of education based on the Enlightenment principles of Rousseau. (One, Lucretia, he discarded after a year having decided she lacked potential, while Sabrina remained.) In 18th-century terms, this was doubly insalubrious: both because unchaperoned contact between an adult man and two prepubescent girls would have been deemed a threat to their honour, and because their likely illegitimacy as foundlings meant their honour was considered questionable anyway.
These taboos only hardened into the 19th century, leading to the project's tactful elision in accounts of Day. (As well as being a pioneer of female training, he was respected as a children's author and a polemicist against slavery.) But from a 21st-century perspective, the moral horror is less likely to stem from ideas about honour and more from a conviction that women, being people, really shouldn't be treated as subjects to be moulded, tested and discarded when found wanting.
Moore is admirably even handed, and does her best to place Day in the context of his times: his belief that women could be educated at all was remarkably forward-thinking, she points out, and he maintained financial responsibility for the two, paying out pensions and dowries. And, she stresses, there's no evidence that he ever imposed himself on them sexually. (Actually, beyond a stated preference for "plump white arms", Day seems to have felt little enough lust. The fact that his eventual marriage was childless doesn't mean it was sexless, but it certainly seems possible.)
Yet even by the standards of the era, Day's activities have an unsettling quality. In some ways, his context makes them more unforgivable: his friend Edgeworth had an unhappy first marriage but formed an intimate and equable partnership in his second, and raised his daughter as an intellectual equal. Day's social life brought him no shortage of contact with intelligent, ambitious women. Meanwhile, Day laboured to make Sabrina into a combination of amanuensis and servant – educated enough to help in his own labours, while her work consisted solely of the hard domestic labour involved in keeping a house.
To harden her for the ascetic existence he had planned, Day put her through physical privations – dunking her in cold water, dripping hot wax on her bare skin, and savagely criticising her "progress" in his scheme. That criticism (a pick-up artist would call it "negging") strikes me as one of the cruellest parts of Day's scheme, and it's a theme that continued into his marriage to Esther Milnes after he finally rejected Sabrina. If Sabrina's story is one of survival, Milnes' is one of defeat. The brief impression Moore gives of the Days' bleak married life suggests levels of psychological abuse approaching Wuthering Heights.
Moore is a sure guide to all this, though not every aspect of her telling quite comes off. Efforts to remind us of the broader historical context are sometimes clumsily drawn, as when she makes the American War of Independence a parable for Sabrina's withdrawal from Day's influence. Where she succeeds intensely, though, is in redeeming Sabrina from the shadow of Day, and painting a portrait of supposed rationalism as a vehicle for an unsettling species of inhumanity.