The Idiot’s Guide to Enlightened Matrimony

Review of How to Create the Perfect Wife: Britain’s Most Ineligible Bachelor and His Enlightened Quest to Train the Ideal Mate, by Wendy Moore (New York: Basic Books, 2013)

We all know someone like the strangely sympathetic protagonist of Wendy Moore’s How to Create the Perfect Wife.

Thomas Day was perennially unlucky in love. By the time he was twenty he had already had his heart broken by, to hear him tell it, two of the most fickle and shallow women in all of Britain. His friends admired him for his intelligence, honesty, and commitment to virtue, but thought that maybe a little personal hygiene, a haircut, and some table manners might improve his matrimonial hopes.

Day, however, despised all such “pretenses.” He saw himself as a man apart, bravely rejecting the false and corrupting influence of eighteenth-century polite society. Even worse, no matter the occasion or company, he loved to hold forth on the frivolity and stupidity of the ladies of high society, something not calculated to win female admiration. Yet for all his friends’ gentle (and sometimes very blunt) advice, Day could not understand why women weren’t capable of getting past these minor flaws to see the romantic within. Yes, we all know someone like Thomas Day; but, no matter how misguided, none of Day’s modern day counterparts seek to remedy their unfortunate bachelor condition in quite the way he did. A man of means and influence, in 1769 Day adopted two twelve-year old orphan girls with the intent to educate one of them to become his wife.

It is this bizarre twist in a familiar tale that serves as the focus of Wendy Moore’s stranger-than-fiction trek through the life of Thomas Day—poet, children’s book author, abolitionist, education guru, and amateur wife-maker. While the subject is compelling enough to inspire interest on its own, in Moore’s capable hands the story of Day and his erstwhile “pupils” becomes more than just a bizarre relic of eighteenth-century British society. Impressively researched—and by turns hilarious and heartbreaking—Moore’s book offers a wild ride through Enlightenment society by asking one simple question: what made Day’s unusual path to matrimony a viable option for a perennial bachelor in eighteenth-century Britain?

Moore finds answers in a wide-ranging and perceptive analysis of British society in the late eighteenth century. She initially delves into the world of foundlings, those unfortunate children abandoned by their parents for economic or social reasons, and brings to light stories of both kindness and cruelty in the eighteenth-century treatment of these lowest members of society. In orphan houses in London and elsewhere, unwanted children were assigned a number, a new name (to obscure their shameful origins), and prepared to make their own way in society soon as they were able to work. Moore argues that while the wardens of orphanages usually attempted to place their charges into good positions, the sheer volume of children in their care meant that some inevitably slipped through the cracks. Perhaps the best illustration of this is the ease with which Day waltzed into Shrewsbury Foundling Hospital and, with the right amount of money and good breeding, emerged with two twelve-year-old girls destined, he claimed, to be servants for a “friend.” By promptly renaming them Sabrina and Lucretia, Day ensured his foundlings severed all connection with their former life.

Day’s detailed plans for the education of his young charges provide Moore with the opportunity to explore the impact of enlightened notions on gender and child rearing. Day, like so many other guardians of eighteenth-century Europe, held the French philosophe Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Émile in high esteem as a child-rearing manual. In Rousseau’s fictional tale, Emile is educated according to his own whims, allowed to run wild and barefoot in all weather, and absolutely never reprimanded, all in the effort to produce a “natural” adult, uncorrupted by the conventions of polite society.

The appeal of such a program to Day, who himself bucked most social niceties and particularly despised them in women, is clear. Rousseau’s treatise also dealt with female education, advising that suppressing curiosity and independence were the best way to turn girls into docile helpmeets. Not surprisingly, most parents were far from eager to sentence their daughters to this cruel regime. But not so for Thomas Day: not only were Sabrina and Lucretia kept utterly in the dark about their strange role in Day’s future plans, they were also forced to wait on him hand and foot, cooking and cleaning even while being expected to study extensively with Day.

On a broader level, How to Create the Perfect Wife works well as an introduction to some of the most important developments of eighteenth-century Britain. Day rubbed elbows with a wide variety of important figures, and Moore makes the most of these connections: Erasmus Darwin, Josiah Wedgwood, James Watt, and even Rousseau all make cameo appearances as tolerant observers of Day’s unusual project. Day himself was an important figure in the early abolitionist movement, and even opposed the American Revolution on these grounds. For the most part, Moore does an excellent job weaving these elements into the main story of Day and Sabrina, but she occasionally stretches a bit too far to make connections.

It seems imprudent at best to compare, in any sense, Sabrina and Lucretia’s unfortunate yet still relatively physically comfortable existence to the plight of the African slaves whom Day sought to liberate, and yet Moore spends significant time doing that. And while it is certainly interesting to contemplate the impact that Sabrina’s story might have had on nineteenth-century authors, Moore is a bit too confident in her unsupported claims that no less than Jane Austen and George Bernard Shaw borrowed elements of Day and Sabrina’s story in writing some of their most famous pieces.

But these are minor flaws in an otherwise impressive, engaging, and thoroughly entertaining work. Moore succeeds in portraying her characters, especially the orphan girls, both sympathetically and perceptively. The appeal of How to Create the Perfect Wife is remarkably broad; it should find an audience among both casual readers and professional historians. While it seems strange to say about a work of history, I have avoided the temptation to give away the ending: Moore’s able storytelling combined with Day’s bizarre quest to create his ideal woman make How to Create the Perfect Wife, apart from all its other virtues, a page-turner of the first order.