Wendy Moore, How to Create the Perfect Wife, Phoenix paperback, 2014; first published 2013
I first came across this bizarre twist on the Frankenstein story when I was teaching a Romantics module on a degree course a few years ago (link to my series of posts on Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel HERE).
Wealthy, eccentric and uncouth Thomas Day had been upset several times when his fiancées had a change of heart about marriage and rejected him. The latest of these was Margaret, sister of his friend Richard Lovell Edgeworth (Anglo-Irish inventor and father of the novelist Maria). Day was hardly a compelling romantic prospect: his face was badly scarred from childhood smallpox; he was dirty, unkempt, morose, moody, misogynistic and opinionated, given to holding forth at tedious length on his pet subjects.
A devotee of Rousseau’s radical theories about education and social equality, he nevertheless (like his hero) held paradoxically misogynistic and repressive views on women: their role, he believed, was to submit to and obey men. Libertarians at that time firmly held that women were an inferior species and were therefore exempt from androcentric strictures about equality, liberty and human rights. (Today’s so-called libertarians here in the UK at the moment think, equally irrationally, that it’s an infringement on their civil liberties to have to wear a mask to stop them infecting and potentially killing people around them.)
The marital rejections he’d been humiliated by, he believed, were the consequence of young women’s being exposed to and deformed by the corrupting influence of foppish Georgian society. They were susceptible to what he saw as the vacuous distractions of fashion, dancing, gossip, and so on, and lacked rational capacity (that is, they failed to discern his genius). His plan was for his wife to live with him in simple, idyllic rural seclusion, dressed peasant style and following a frugal regime. She would defer to him and his every whim, and yet entertain him intellectually – she’d therefore need a modicum of rational education.
His monstrous plan, formed at the age of just 21 in 1769, in imitation of Rousseau’s scheme in Emile, or on Education (1761-2), was to find a pre-pubescent girl, as yet unspoilt by social influences, her mind a blank slate on which he could inscribe his own program, and to train her to become his ideal wife. He hedged his bets by selecting two orphans from foundling hospitals in Shrewsbury and London, whose names he changed to Sabrina (Latin for Severn, the river in Shrewsbury where her hospital was located), and Lucretia. If one fell short of his exacting standards, the other would, he hoped, meet them.
His scheme, fortunately, failed. Both girls failed to fulfil his selfish, impossible ambitions. His despotic methods included interminable sessions of tedious instruction – the pedagogy of the oppressor. He would cruelly expose them to physical, emotional and psychological traumas, privations and constraints, and try to condition their behaviour through punishment, coercion and bullying. One example of this, which Moore doesn’t mention explicitly, was his practice of firing a gun behind them unexpectedly to startle them; if they screamed or made a fuss they’d be admonished. It was their task to show stoical indifference to all hardships or knocks, and to obey blindly any male orders, however ridiculous or demeaning to them.
Day’s arrogance is depicted with graphic clarity in this lively, depressing account, and the monstrous presumptuousness of his experiment is expounded in all its cruelty. Moore also points out that it was Day’s social rank, wealth and gender that enabled him to get away with his devious schemes; nowadays one would hope he’d be exposed and prosecuted as a paedophile and predator.
He was a strangely paradoxical character: he gave away much of his wealth to the poor, and was an abolitionist, and yet he made a virtual slave of Sabrina, and abandoned her to a life of penury when she failed to satisfy his requirements.
Moore goes on to show what happened in Sabrina’s life after she was callously cast aside by Day (just as Victor Frankenstein abandoned his Creature, who had also come to appal him). After many hardships she found a kind of peace and perhaps love. Day, for his part, continued to be as boorish and overbearing for the rest of his life. Astonishingly, he managed to find a young woman who went along with his tyrannical regime for a wife, and even seemed to dote on him. There really is no accounting for taste.
I’d have liked to see more of the author’s discussion of influences on Day’s thinking other than Rousseau’s; the scientists/’natural philosophers’ whose thinking radically influenced the nascent Romantic movement, such as those in what became, from 1775, the Lunar Society (which met on the nights of a full moon, hence the name). These late Enlightenment intellectuals – ‘men of observation’ – promulgated the ‘experimental optimism’ mentioned by Jenny Uglow in her book about them, The Lunar Men: The friends who made the future, 1730-1810 (2002; reviewed in the Guardian HERE).
I’d also have liked more on the influence of Day’s callous experiment with Sabrina on later writers, touched on only briefly in Moore’s account, from Henry James’s Watch and Ward to Shaw’s version of the Pygmalion story. Trollope has a tale about a young man who moulds an orphan to become his wife as a central thread in his 1862 novel Orley Farm (I haven’t read it, so can’t confirm this claim). Maria Edgeworth’s fictional treatments of Day’s story are covered by Moore rather more thoroughly, from an early short story to the ‘society’ novel Belinda (1801).
Moore’s style is gratingly journalistic at times, and there’s a dusty air to the whole thing, perhaps a consequence of the obviously very thorough research she conducted – there are 35 pages of notes, and an extensive bibliography. Sometimes I felt that the copious narrative detail obscured or diminished the shocking impact of the central theme.