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Mon April 22, 2013

A British Intellectual's Mission 'To Create The Perfect Wife'

Originally published on Tue April 30, 2013 5:01 pm

At least since Pygmalion prayed for his beautiful ivory statue to become a real woman, men have struggled to find a mate who is almost literally made for them. Today you can turn to any number of algorithm-based websites to find your romantic ideal; you can even special-order brides from faraway lands. But in Georgian England, one well-heeled young man sought out his perfect love in a rather shocking and unlikely place: an orphanage.

So begins the story central to Wendy Moore's latest book, How to Create the Perfect Wife, a historical remembrance of the famous and wealthy 18th century intellectual Thomas Day.

Born rich and made richer from an inheritance early in life, Day was educated at the finest schools in England and given entree to all the opportunities his privilege afforded. He could travel wherever and whenever he pleased, and he counted as close friends people like Erasmus Darwin, future grandfather of Charles. Still, as has always been the case, there was one thing all of Day's money couldn't buy: a faithful girlfriend.

After initiating a handful of failed courtships, even unsuccessfully proposing marriage to a friend's sister, the brash and stubborn Day decided at age 20 that love was merely a "figment of the imagination," and that every woman was fickle and foolish. In fact, the ladies who spurned Day's advances generally did so because of his insistence that his wife live a life of pure asceticism and desolation, free from the superficiality he despised in his contemporaries. Day also expected his wife to be wholly obedient to him.

It's not surprising that such rigorous demands turned off more than a few bright young women, especially considering that Day found things like social graces and basic hygiene to be pointless pursuits. But to Day, the problem was with the entire female gender, and he would complain openly that "the whole female Sex cannot furnish one single rational Woman."

Ever the hubristic ideologue, Day came up with a sickening plan: If he couldn't meet the right woman, he would make her. Using his wealth and influential friends as cover, Day adopted two orphan girls with the express purpose of training them to be adequate wives via lessons inspired by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau's 1762 novel, Emile, advocated experiential learning and strengthening children by exposing them to the harshness of nature. In Day's marital education program, after abandoning one of his charges for being "invincibly stupid," he took to toughening the other, Sabrina, by pouring hot wax on her skin and pricking her with needles. I'll not spoil the conclusion, but needless to say, it's not long before Day disposes of Sabrina, too — though her story doesn't end there.

How to Create the Perfect Wife is adroitly written, making the book at times feel less like a history tome and more like a novel. There are the dull moments that surely come with any story about Georgian courtship, but those lulls are forgiven as one delves further into Moore's deeply thorough research, which yields new surprises at every turn.

Perhaps most astonishing is that Thomas Day would eventually become one of England's most vociferous anti-slavery activists, a cause for which he is still lovingly remembered today — this despite the fact that he once kidnapped two girls and proceeded to abuse them in a dangerous and self-serving romantic experiment. Among other things, hopefully this book will add some much needed perspective to Day's legacy.

The man got away with enough while still alive; he shouldn't be able to escape his vile deeds in death as well.

Cord Jefferson is the West Coast editor at Gawker.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

A good partner is hard to find. But back in Georgian England, one wealthy young man tried to find his true love where few then or now would ever think to look - an orphanage. Wendy Moore writes about their story in her new nonfiction book, "How To Create The Perfect Wife." Cord Jefferson has our review.

CORD JEFFERSON, BYLINE: Thomas Day was rich. He went to the finest schools. He was well traveled. But still, there was one thing all of his money and influence couldn't buy, a girlfriend. He tried. He had a few failed relationships. He even proposed to a friend's sister once. But at age 21, he'd had enough. He decided love was an illusion, girls were fickle and shallow. He once wrote that the whole female sex could not furnish one, single rational woman.

But no matter, if Day couldn't find the perfect wife, he figured he make her. Using his money and his powerful friends, he adopted two orphan girls and started training them to be potential wives. Unfortunately, one turned out to be invincibly stupid but he liked the other, so he tried to toughen her up by pouring hot wax on her and pricking her with needles. I won't give away the ending but I think you can see where this is going.

The relationship does not work out. "How To Create The Perfect Wife" is skillfully written. It feels more like a novel than a history book. There are a few dull moments, of course. This is 18th century England we're talking about. But the lulls are forgiven when you delve into Wendy Moore's deep and thorough research and there are some great surprises along the way.

Most shocking is that Thomas Day would eventually become a beloved anti-slavery activist. He's still remembered mostly for that and not the fact that he once kidnapped and abused two orphan girls. Hopefully, this book will add some perspective to his legacy. The guy got away with enough while he was still alive. He shouldn't be able to escape his sins in death as well.

BLOCK: And the book is "How To Create A Perfect Wife, Britain's Most Ineligible Bachelor and His Enlightened Quest to Train the Ideal Mate" written by Wendy Moore. Our reviewer is Cord Jefferson, West Coast editor of the website Gawker. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.