WENDY Moore has very successfully secured a self-made niche in writing popular, witty and yet incisive books on the more recherché aspects of 18th century culture, often demonstrating how the most peculiar and almost unbelievable stories inform not just the everyday culture of the period, but our own as well.
How To Create The Perfect Wife by Wendy Moore
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £18.99
The Knife Man chronicled the career of Scottish-born and London-practising physician John Hunter, an autodidact genius with a similarly self-assembled morality, who appears as the nemesis in Hilary Mantel’s novel The Giant, O’Brien. Wedlock, with the glorious subtitle “How Georgian Britain’s Worst Husband Met His Match”, about the Countess of Strathmore and the fortune-seeking Andrew Robinson Stoney, was a bestseller. How To Create The Perfect Wife has a similarly eyebrow-raising subtitle: “Georgian Britain’s Most Ineligible Bachelor And His Quest To Cultivate The Ideal Woman”.
The bachelor in question was Thomas Day, heir to a fortune, who, through reading the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, held the artificial politeness of 18th century society in pompous disdain. He appeared wigless, rarely washed, and despite his table manners and inability to brook any contradiction, seems to have genuinely believed he should cultivate frugality and charity far from the cesspits of modern civilisation. To do so completely, however, he needed a wife, and came up with the bizarre scheme of obtaining a child (two, eventually, in the interests of scientific research: he needed a control on the experiment in modern parlance) from an orphanage and bringing her up to be resilient as a Spartan and as educated as an Athenian, by teaching her himself and strengthening her through such “modern” methods as firing a pistol at her and pouring burning wax on her neck. Oh, and insisting she never contradict him. That his plan was a failure is the least interesting angle. The light it sheds on philosophical culture of the period is astonishing.
Day was involved with many of the leading luminaries of the age, including members of the Lunar Society such as Erasmus Darwin and James Watt and the poet Anna Seward. His best friend, and one of his co-conspirators, was Richard Lovell Edgeworth, father of the novelist Maria Edgeworth. Moore forensically describes not just how all these cultivated individuals knew what Day was up to (and mocked him for it), but how their interconnected lives, feuds and affairs mirrored his fascination with creating the ideal woman.
There are too many twists and turns in the story to summarise in a review, and part of the charm of the book is the unexpected corkscrews of fate between the various characters.
Through Maria Edgeworth, who wrote about a similar wife-training experiment in Belinda, Moore charts a literary genealogy through Anthony Trollope’s Orley Farm to George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and its musical version, My Fair Lady. There are perhaps a few too many references to Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle – the most popular version of the narrative, and the one most familiar to most readers – but at least Moore insists that the story has more in common with Shaw’s version than the saccharine adaptation.
For all his obvious misogyny and, to be frank, eccentricity, the story of Day’s experiment raises issues about such developments as “child-centred education”. The fad for implementing Rousseau’s (fictional) Émile has had huge repercussions; though Rousseau himself thought little of such endeavours. Moore manages to balance the narrative precisely, neither bridling with condemnation nor glossing over the more barbaric and melancholy results of these shifts in thinking about childhood. The overall result is a book which is both comical and horrific.
Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that Day, after partially abandoning his project, found fame with a poem, The Dying Negro, which was an important precursor to abolitionist literature. Even more bizarrely, he became one of the world’s first and most successful children’s writers, with Sandford and Merton. This is the best kind of non-fiction, the kind that reads like a novel and yet couldn’t be made up.