Book review: How to Create the Perfect Wife by Wendy Moore

A version of 'The Foundlings', a depiction of staff and inmates at the Foundling Hospital, Bloomsbury, London, circa 1745. Picture: Getty
A version of 'The Foundlings', a depiction of staff and inmates at the Foundling Hospital, Bloomsbury, London, circa 1745. Picture: Getty
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BIOGRAPHER Wendy Moore can barely disguise her disdain for her subject, Thomas Day, Enlightenment man and protestor at the slave trade, who “bought” two orphan girls in 1769 with a view to raising them to be his “perfect” wives.

How to Create the Perfect Wife

by Wendy Moore

Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 336pp, £18.99

Or one of them would be – Day at least drew the line at bigamy. The other would be cast off once he had made his decision.

What is truly remarkable about this project is not that an individual should think up such a scheme – worse happened to unprotected orphanage girls in the Georgian era, than to be trained up as a wealthy, if “eccentric”, young man’s wife, and ways of living a “perfect life” were all the rage with philosophers at the time. What is remarkable is that so many of his friends supported his obsession, either actively by accompanying him on his trips to the foundling hospitals to choose a suitable candidate, as his lawyer friend, John Bicknell did, or by encouraging his Rousseau-influenced views on education, as Richard Lovell Edgeworth (the father of novelist Maria Edgeworth) did. 
Erasmus Darwin and Anna Seward were friends who also knew what he was doing.

Thomas Day inherited a fortune on the death of his father, but unlike many of his Oxford contemporaries was less inclined to wild behaviour than to studying Hume, Locke and Voltaire, determined that his true vocation was to be a “virtuous man”. And he wanted a young woman to share that life with. Tall and possibly handsome but for the smallpox marks on his face, Day was a poor dresser with inadequate social skills. Moore refers repeatedly to his pedantic manner and tendency to give speeches on his favourite philosophic subjects, which, together with his plan to live a frugal life after marriage, in isolation from society, tended to have potential brides scurrying for the door.

Day would be disappointed in love again and again. After being jilted by his great friend Edgeworth’s sister, Margaret, he decided to leave nothing to chance and took two girls, Ann Kingston (number 4579 at the Clerkenwell Foundling Hospital) and Dorcas Car (number 10413 at a foundling hospital in Holborn). Moore includes the heartbreaking and shocking statistic that really illuminates the dreadful history of these abandoned babies and girls – Dorcas’s hospital alone admitted 14,934 babies during a four-year period. Day promised the hospitals’ governors that they were to be apprenticed to his friend Edgeworth (who, as a married man, would be allowed to have them live with them), but this was a lie. He took both girls to live with him, instead, changed their names to Sabrina and Lucretia and began to educate them.

After two years, Day decided Sabrina was the better prospect and handed Lucretia over to be apprenticed to a milliner. Sabrina was then placed in a very confusing situation – aged 13, she had been shown how to carry out household tasks, form scrubbing floors to cooking meals, but she had also been taught arithmetic and philosophy. Now, Day introduced her to his enlightened friends, Anna Seward and Erasmus Darwin. She was neither a servant nor a companion – and yet she was also both. Soon, Day’s mission took a darker turn – he began burning her bare shoulders with hot wax to see how far she could stand pain, and shooting at her skirts to make her withstand fear.

All of this appears quite insane behaviour but what Day was doing was taking an Enlightenment philosophy – that rationality superseded emotion – and some radical education theories by Rousseau that to our modern eyes don’t look very radical at all (he advocated a child-centred approach, which we have today), and applying them to the letter.

His public opposition to slavery could be seen in the same rational light. For that reason, many of his Enlightenment friends, the philosophers and scientists who made up Birmingham’s famous Lunar Society, applauded what he was doing. That few of them stopped to think of the effect this might have on a young woman’s consciousness is remarkable, indeed.

Inevitably, Day’s plans came to nought. Sabrina rejected his marriage proposals. After many further attempts Day finally met Esther Milnes, an heiress who shared his odd views on frugality and isolation, but their marriage was not considered a happy one. Sabrina, in what may be the greatest surprise, married Day’s friend, John Bicknell, the very man who had accompanied him all those years ago to the foundling hospital to pick her out.

Moore’s history is beautifully told and researched – all credit to her for discovering the real origins of Sabrina and Lucretia, when so many declared there were no such records of these girls, and for telling as much of their incredible story as she has.