Brain Pickings

How to Create the Perfect Wife

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How an 18th-century bachelor enlisted Rousseau’s teachings in Frankensteining his better-ever half.

In the spring of 1769, twenty-one-year old Thomas Day received a letter informing him that his fiancée was breaking up with him. Margaret, the attractive, cultured, and spirited sister of a friend he had met the summer before, was clearly no match for the awkward, sullen, and serious Day, who had resolved at a young age to live a hermetic life with a devoted wife at his side. Margaret’s ultimate folly wasn’t that she was in every way incompatible with Day, but instead that she had been corrupted by the world by simply living in it.

Women were “universally shallow, fickle, illogical, and untrustworthy.” But Thomas Day wasn’t bitter. He had simply thought he could bend the will of a grown woman into his perfect partner. He would have to experiment with a less fully formed individual. He wrote to a friend:

There is a little Girl of about thirteen upon whose Mind I shall have in my Power to make the above mentioned Experiment … she is innocent, & unprejudic’d; she has seen nothing of the World,& is unattach’d to it.

“Since he had not found the right woman,” writes Wendy Moore in How to Create the Perfect Wife: Britain’s Most Ineligible Bachelor and his Enlightened Quest to Train the Ideal Mate (public library), “the right woman simply did not exist.” Much like Pygmalion, or perhaps even Dr. Frankenstein, Thomas Day would have to create her.

'Pygmalion and Galatea' by Jean-Léon Gérôme, c. 1890. In Ovid’s 'Metamorphosis,' Venus grants the artist Pygmalion a beautiful wife by bringing his sculpture to life. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Thomas Day had a plan for his perfect wife: he would train her according to the principles of John-Jacques Rousseau, whose novel Émile outlined a radical new form of education. When they were born, children had previously been blemished with original sin, but Rousseau maintained that a young child was essentially perfect, it was the world that corrupted. “Everything is good as it leaves the hands of the author of things,” he wrote, “everything degenerates in the hands of man.”

In Émile, Rousseau explained that children should learn through play and discovery, not rote memorization, which was the vogue in classrooms of the day (and, sadly, of today to a large degree). They should be encouraged and nurtured, allowed to take part in scientific experiments, but also should experience the harsh elements, such as cold and hunger, to strengthen their character. (Rousseau didn’t care to test his methods on his own flesh and blood: the five children he had out of wedlock with his mistress were sent directly to the orphanage.) In the novel, young Émile is successfully brought up according to these rules, but when he goes in search of his mate, her education has been less well-planned: the perfect wife for Émile was “a simple, artless, country maid”

'An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump by Joseph Wright of Derby,' 1768. The children present at this experiment reflect the Enlightenment education promoted by Rousseau. (National Gallery, London)

Day wanted a wife who was a magical joining of the two: the intelligence of Émile, and the unquestioning obedience of a country maid. At twenty-one, after his rebuff by Margaret, Day came into his considerable inheritance and determined that it was time to begin his experiment. He went to the foundling hospital and picked up two girls of eleven and twelve, under the assumption that they would be maids in a friend’s household. He gave them new names, Sabrina and Lucrecia, new clothes, and a new life, sweeping them off to France, where he began their new education.

There he taught the girls reading, writing, and arithmetic, and also had them perform all the household duties of a maid. In less than a year, he determined that Lucrecia was “invincibly stupid” and sent her to apprentice with a milliner, providing her with a generous dowry of £400 (about $96,000 today). The intelligent and obedient Sabrina would be his wife.

Day ramped up his education, beginning trials of endurance that Rousseau had claimed would turn boys into men: Day poured hot wax into Sabrina’s arms; he threw her into a lake, unable to swim; and he fired unloaded pistols at her to accustom her to loud noises. He would also test her “feminine” will by giving her a new dress, the first she ever had, and commanding her to throw it into the fire and watch it burn.

'Thomas Day,' by Joseph Wright, 1770. Painted when he was 22 and deeply invested in the upbringing of thirteen-year-old Sabrina as his wife. (National Portrait Gallery, London))

The tests left Sabrina confused, angry, and willful. Her education made little sense, as did her place in Day’s household, where he continued to tell her he was training her as a housekeeper. At fourteen, an age when her “wifely” qualities should have bloomed, Sabrina was no closer to Day’s perfection. Annoyed, he packed her off to boarding school, providing her with an allowance and a dowry, but otherwise discarding her as a failure.

Day would eventually marry a devoted woman that he could order around as he pleased, and Sabrina at twenty-six married one of his close friends. At the age of forty-one, Thomas Day was thrown from his horse and never regained consciousness. A strong believer in animal rights, he had failed to properly break the horse.

How to Create the Perfect Wife is the tale of a modern Pygmalion, whose intentions, however misguided, reflected an extraordinary age of educational reform for children, male and female alike. Writing to a friend about his former fiancée Margaret before he began his lifelong quest to train a wife, he had and uncharacteristic moment of insight that would have served him in his desire for a perfect partner: “I loved an imaginary being.”

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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