The myth of one man’s effort to create a perfect woman is a recurring theme in Western literature, from Ovid’s telling of the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea in classical Rome to Lerner and Lowe’s My Fair Lady in twentieth-century America.* In each version of the story, the creator falls in love with his creation, whether he begins with a hunk of marble or a Covent Garden flower girl.
In How To Create The Perfect Wife: Britain’s Most Ineligible Bachelor and His Enlightened Quest to Train The Ideal Mate Wendy Moore tells the astonishing– and appalling–real life story of one man’s attempt to play Pygmalion. The real life version was a little more complicated than the myth.
Thomas Day was wealthy, intelligent, and a gentleman in the technical sense, if not in terms of manners or social graces. He was a disciple of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, an ardent crusader against slavery, an occasionally ambivalent supporter of the American Revolution, and the author of an enormously popular children’s book. He was also slovenly in his dress, badly groomed, and impatient of fashionable fripperies.
By the time he was twenty-one he had been engaged and jilted twice. Secure in his sense of personal worth, he came to the conclusion that the problem was the way Georgian society educated upper class women. (After all, the problem couldn’t possibly be him.) Inspired by Rousseau’s Emile, he decided to train a young girl to be the perfect wife. Day selected two young girls as potential wives, and removed them from the Foundling Hospital under false pretenses, abetted by two of his best friends. I’m not saying another word about what happens after that, because I don’t want to spoil that story.
Moore writes in a lively style that kept me eager to know what happened next. At the same time, she sets Day’s experiments solidly in the world of eighteenth century intellectuals: members of Erasmus Darwin’s Lunar Society,** Benjamin Franklin, novelist Maria Edgeworth, and a very irritated Rousseau all play a role. In fact, the most astonishing thing about Day’s experiments is that number of people who knew about them and did not intervene.
If you have a taste for Jane Austen (or Georgette Heyer), an interest in Enlightenment thought, or a fascination with eccentrics, give yourself a treat and read How to Create a Perfect Wife.
*Does anyone know of a similar tale of a woman’s attempt to create a perfect man? My guess is that none exist because such tales assume a degree of power over another human being that was historically a male prerogative.
**Sometimes known as the “lunaticks”.