Thomas Day is the ultimate 18th century misogynist. He was also an abolitionist, philanthropist, Rousseau obsessive, and a famous children’s writer, but let’s get one thing straight: he was a complete tool. He expected in a wife more than the average Georgian male desired in every paragon of womanhood he could possibly meet. Instead of virtue and social poise, he wanted a precise definition of perfection, and despite chancing on the only woman in the world who could give it to him, he was never satisfied with her.
But I am getting ahead of myself. As Wendy Moore recounts in her delightful book, ‘How to Create The Perfect Wife,’ Thomas Day’s adventure begins with a harebrained idea, borne of dejection after a disastrous betrothal, to mold a child into his future wife. He wanted his Sophie, the virtuous, frugal, and faithfully abiding wife to Rousseau’s Emile, and like Moore suggests, set about recreating Pygmalion’s Galatea.
Pygmalion and Galatea by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy Trioson (1819)
To accomplish his task, Day and a friend travel to a foundling hospital, select two sprightly candidates, Sabrina and Lucretia, and inform them of a future apprenticeship, kindly leaving out the true facts of the matter. Day then concocts an educational program and, after a year, chooses Sabrina, the superior-minded and better behaved of the two girls, to be his future wife. What follows is a hardening process in order to prepare Sabrina for asceticism which, in Day’s estimation, means a departure from fashionable society in order to live a life of scarcity. His process is nothing short of psychological torture, freezing Sabrina, shooting at her, and generally wobbling the poor girl’s wits until she cracks.
Eventually, perhaps recognizing her imminent peril, Sabrina commits a willful indiscretion. However minor, it signals a connubial death knell to Thomas Day and he casts her aside. Most amazing about Sabrina’s ordeal is that the experiment wasn’t exactly commenced in secret. A number of well-to-do Georgians witnessed Day’s attempt to carve an ideal from flesh and never made a peep. So much for the Age of Enlightenment. If there is a major pitfall among Georgian intellectuals in this story, it is the emotional detritus created by a strict adherence to logic and thus, the entire abandonment of heart for mind.
Thomas Day by Joseph Wright (1770)
Sabrina was just one casualty of the movement, though Day would argue any future with him was an improvement upon what the foundling hospital could provide. ‘How to Create the Perfect Wife’ leaves readers to agree or disagree on that point, but Moore’s dry wit in portraying Day is undeniable. For all that Day is exasperating in his treatment of women, he’s a fascinating fellow. Through Day’s misadventures, Moore captures a philosophical culture that even its father, Rousseau, found lacking beyond theoretical bounds. ‘How to Create the Perfect Wife’ is as compelling a social history as it is an arousing biography of an unusual man and for Georgian enthusiasts, it’s a must read.