Wendy Moore, How to Create the Perfect Wife

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).

Moore, Perfect Wife cover 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.

 

 

 

 

 

More obscure lives by Woolf: Edgeworth and Day

More on the ‘Lives of the Obscure’ in V. Woolf’s The Common Reader, vol.1.

Last time I noted her portraits and analyses not just of the literary greats like Austen and Eliot, but also the vignettes of marginal, forgotten characters, mainly women, whose obscurity seemed to resonate with her poignantly. This is what follows the mention of Miss Biffen:

It is Mrs Dyer who pours out tea for them in Clifford’s Inn. Mr Charles Lamb has just left the room. Mrs Dyer says she married George because his washerwoman cheated him so. What do you think George paid for his shirts, she asks?

These sketches, apparently random and fragmentary, cohere into an impressionistic whole, a galaxy of minor stars. She goes on:

Gently, beautifully, like the clouds of a balmy evening, obscurity once more traverses the sky, an obscurity which is not empty but thick with the star dust of innumerable lives.

More fragments follow, sense impressions, then she notices an ‘enormous wheel’ careering down a Berkshire hill in the 18C. Suddenly the young son of a bricklayer jumps out ‘from within’ and it’s smashed ‘to smithereens’:

This is Edgeworth’s doing – Richard Lovell Edgeworth, we mean, the portentous bore.

This must be one of his crackpot invention/experiments; Woolf doesn’t think it necessary to explain, preferring to let the weirdness speak for itself. Her attention turns to ‘his two volumes of memoirs’ and his extraordinary life:

Byron’s bore, Day’s friend, Maria’s father, the man who almost invented the telegraph, and did, in fact, invent machines for cutting turnips, climbing walls, contracting on narrow bridges…a man meritorious, industrious, advanced, but still, as we investigate his memoirs, mainly a bore.

This Anglo-Irish politician, writer and inventor (1744-1817), is said by Wikipedia to have invented the caterpillar track, among other things, and he was the father of the novelist Maria Edgeworth. He seems to have been an unpleasant character. As Woolf says of this gifted egoist he married four times – two of the wives were sisters Honora and Elizabeth Sneyd (the former a writer and proto-feminist who shared his interest in educational theory) – and fathered with them not 19 (as Woolf says) but 22 children. He and his even more unpleasant friend Thomas Day were prominent members of the Lunar Society (c. 1765-1813), a loose association of scientists, philosophers and artists forming the Midlands Enlightenment; other members included Erasmus Darwin, Joseph Priestley and Josiah Wedgewood, the entrepreneur and ceramicist – see this review in the Guardian of Jenny Uglow’s book, The Lunar Men: the friends who made the future, 1730-1810. London: Faber, 2002. Its name alludes to their practice of meeting for dinner and conversation at each others’ houses on the Sunday nearest the full moon so that they could ride home illuminated by it.

An_Experiment_on_a_Bird_in_an_Air_Pump_by_Joseph_Wright_of_Derby,_1768

An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump, by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1768. It depicts one of the ‘natural philosophy’ experiments with the vacuum device invented by Boyle. Public domain via National Gallery, London/Tate Gallery: Wikimedia Commons

Edgeworth wrote with daughter Maria a tract on education heavily influenced by Rousseau’s theories. He in turn influenced boring Day, who hardly distinguished himself by proposing to Edgeworth’s sister, and to Honora before she married his friend – who had also fallen in love with her while still married to his previous wife. Not surprising they were friends, really.

He attracts Woolf’s attention because of his associations with ‘diffident, shrinking figures who would otherwise be drowned in darkness’. It is through their eyes, she says, that we see him: a tyrant unaware of his own cruelty, bemused that his wife had ‘taken a strong dislike to Mr Day’ – that serial proposer.

Here Woolf acknowledges one of the ‘pitfalls’ of ‘this nocturnal rambling among forgotten worthies’: it’s difficult, she explains, to stick ‘strictly to the facts.’ This is especially true of Day, ‘whose history surpasses the bounds of the credible,’ showing more of the characteristics of fiction. Mrs Edgeworth must, she speculates, have ‘dreaded’ visits from her husband’s friend, ‘with his pompous, melancholy face, marked by the smallpox’, his antisocial manners, his desperation to marry (he’d taught himself to dance in the vain hope of winning the hand of Honora’s sister, later Edgeworth’s wife; as Woolf says, she, ‘of course, refused him’) and his fawning encouragement of Edgeworth’s crazier schemes. Honora’s friend the poet Anna Seward perhaps misguidedly described Day as ‘a sable-haired hero.’

Then we hear of Day’s now notorious scheme to create for himself the perfect wife by adopting two young orphan girls and bringing them up according to some tenets supposedly taken from Rousseau. The more successful girl he’d marry – he named her Sabrina Sidney.

Woolf’s account of how Sabrina failed to pass Day’s exacting tests for a wife is slightly askew. She implies he rushed in a rage after rejection by Elizabeth:

flew into a passion at the sight of her; fired a pistol at her skirts, poured melted sealing-wax over her arms, and boxed her ears.

From what I’ve read these details are accurate, but Day didn’t perform these violent acts out of temper, but as trials calculated to imbue Sabrina with the calm stoicism, fortitude and endurance in the face of the greatest provocation that he felt ideal in his prospective wife. Not surprisingly she disappointed him profoundly when tested so cruelly, by screaming and displaying all of the undesirable flightiness and intemperance, as he saw it, of her sex.

Woolf doesn’t mention that Sabrina, after being cast off by Day, married another man, was widowed, and ended her days as a housekeeper to the family of Fanny Burney’s brother.

She does conclude, with pointed accuracy, what the ‘inconsistent philosopher’ Day’s character really was like:

at once humane and brutal, advanced and hidebound…

This section of Obscure Lives ends with a bizarre scene in which Edgeworth is decribed in a disturbing meeting with an unkempt, ‘mad clergyman’ in an ‘untidy house’ with a garden full of celestial globes. A beautiful young girl brings them tea, ‘a scholar and an artist!’ the clergyman exclaims – but Edgeworth can’t determine if she’s the old man’s daughter, mistress, or what: ‘Who was she?’ And why was the house so filthy, the front door locked? ‘Why was the clergyman apparently a prisoner? Questions began to crowd into Edgeworth’s head…’

‘Something was not right’, he sadly concludes.

The essays in The CR vol. 1 aren’t only essential reading for their discussions of the literary giants, but also for passages of strange charm like this.

I’ve drawn here on Jenny Uglow’s article on Day in the Guardian in 2002. See also the 2013 novel by Wendy Moore, How to Create the Perfect Wife, reviewed in the Guardian that year, which points out ‘Day was a paradoxical character: he became known for his charitable work, giving away much of his fortune to the poor though never giving much thought about Sabrina and her well–being after he abandoned her. He was an adamant abolitionist while at the same time making Sabrina practically his slave’