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So begins the extraordinary true story at the heart of "How to Create the Perfect Wife," prize-winning historian Wendy Moore's captivating tale of one man's mission to groom his ideal mate. A few days after he turned twenty-one and inherited a large fortune, Day adopted two young orphans from the Foundling Hospital and, guided by the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the principles of the Enlightenment, attempted to teach them to be model wives. After six months he discarded one girl, calling her "invincibly stupid," and focused his efforts on his remaining charge. He subjected her to a number of cruel trials--including dropping hot wax on her arms and firing pistols at her skirts--to test her resolve but the young woman, perhaps unsurprisingly, eventually rebelled against her domestic slavery. Day had hoped eventually to marry her, but his peculiar experiment inevitably backfired--though not before he had taken his theories about marriage, education, and femininity to shocking extremes.
Stranger than fiction, blending tragedy and farce, "How to Create the Perfect Wife" is an engrossing tale of the radicalism--and deep contradictions--at the heart of the Enlightenment.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2013-02-11
- Reviewer: Staff
Enlightenment ideals become weapons in the battle of the sexes in this riotous saga of ill-starred romance. Journalist Moore (Wedlock) recounts the bizarre marriage project of Thomas Day, an 18th-century radical whose disdain for grooming, fashion, polite society, and female agency led to a string of rebuffed proposals and broken engagements. Taking a page from Rousseau’s Émile, he procured two tween-aged orphan girls with the object of teaching one to be his contradictory ideal of a wife: virginal, modest, stoically tough (he used hot wax and pistol shots to inure his star pupil to pain and fear), content to be his drudge in an isolated rural hovel, yet intellectually sophisticated enough to admire his progressive notions of freedom and autonomy. Moore sets Day’s mad pedagogy amid a droll account of his upper-class circle and their chaotic love lives, in which passions are advanced and thwarted through curlicued social niceties. Moore’s funny, psychologically rich narrative feels as if Jane Austen had reworked Shaw’s Pygmalion into a Gothic-inflected comedy of manners, and illuminates the era’s confusions about nature and nurture, sentiment and rationalism, love and power. The result is both a scintillating read and compelling social history. Illus. Agent: Patrick Walsh, Conville and Walsh Literary Agency (U.K.). (Apr. 9)
A bizarre, true story of marital idealism
On June 22, 1769, Thomas Day turned 21. Long-suffering in his quest to find a perfect woman, he now found himself a free man in possession of substantial income, and elected to find an unspoiled specimen and train her to his liking. Since Day’s habits included bathing in ice water, eschewing fashion and frippery and manifesting “virtue” through suffering, his struggles to find a mate the old-fashioned way are unsurprising. What does come as a shock is his decision to grease the palms in charge of a foundling hospital in order to abduct two orphans, whom he then trained in an unspoken competition to see which he would select for a bride.
How to Create the Perfect Wife follows this quest, which is by turns comic and tragic. Day sought to follow the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but his desires were all in conflict with one another: He wanted a woman who was strong and healthy, yet demure and virginal; one who was his intellectual equal, yet willing to live in seclusion with him and defer to his authority in all things. Even by the Enlightenment’s standards, his actions were wildly controversial, and of the two girls he trained, it’s clear that Lucretia, who lost a contest she didn’t know she was involved in, came out the winner overall.
Author and historian Wendy Moore writes with a novelist’s flair and fluidity. She is tough but fair to Day; though his ideas about women were clearly dangerous, he was a fine writer, a loyal if blustery friend and an early supporter of the abolition of slavery. He did ultimately marry a woman to whom he appeared well-suited. Nevertheless, he and his foundlings never escaped being objects of “tea table tittle-tattle” for the remainder of their days, and the scandal was harmful to all concerned. Day’s story echoes the original Pygmalion myth, which was not a love story but a cautionary tale about the limits of omnipotence.