Thomas Day, an 18th-century British writer and radical, knew exactly the sort of woman he wanted to marry. Pure and virginal like an English country maid yet tough and hardy like a Spartan heroine, she would live with him in an isolated cottage, completely subservient to his whims. But after being rejected by a number of spirited young women, Day concluded that the perfect partner he envisioned simply did not exist in frivolous, fashion-obsessed Georgian society. Rather than conceding defeat and giving up his search for the woman of his dreams, however, Day set out to create her.
So begins the extraordinary true story at the heart of How to Create the Perfect Wife, prize-winning historian Wendy Moore's captivating tale of one man's mission to groom his ideal mate. A few days after he turned twenty-one and inherited a large fortune, Day adopted two young orphans from the Foundling Hospital and, guided by the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the principles of the Enlightenment, attempted to teach them to be model wives. After six months he discarded one girl, calling her 'invincibly stupid,' and focused his efforts on his remaining charge. He subjected her to a number of cruel trials-- including dropping hot wax on her arms and firing pistols at her skirts-- to test her resolve but the young woman, perhaps unsurprisingly, eventually rebelled against her domestic slavery. Day had hoped eventually to marry her, but his peculiar experiment inevitably backfired--though not before he had taken his theories about marriage, education, and femininity to shocking extremes.
Stranger than fiction, blending tragedy and farce, How to Create the Perfect Wife is an engrossing tale of the radicalism—and deep contradictions—at the heart of the Enlightenment.
This book was a recommendation from a friend and when you read that summary, I'm pretty sure you automatically pick it up. Doesn't it sound great? Man tries to mold perfect wife out of orphans. It's just simultaneously creepy and unbelievable which makes the fact that it's a true story all the better.
It only gets better as you read it. Day is a fascinating character that ends up having ties to a lot of well known figures in the eighteenth century. The sheer number of women he asked to marry him is also astounding. He's honestly one of those characters that you don't really understand but you feel a slight bit of pity for. He's kind of a horrible man but he has good intentions. He also does a great amount of charity work and gives a ton of money away. It's just that he has this one, strange obsession.
Each of the women that comes into Day's life is completely different and that's part of the reason this book is so fascinating. Beyond the two girls that he tries to bring up in a perfect image, there's the friend's sister, the friend's ward, the random girl he meets at a party, the woman who is somehow the perfect match for him but he just can't see it. Each chapter is named after a different woman in his life and to watch these woman interact with Day (and realize just how crazy he is) is ridiculously entertaining.
Perhaps my favorite part of this book is the ongoing sadness of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He writes a book on a theory of education that sets the world talking. Now, this book was supposed to be simply theory and shortly finds out that all these people are trying to raise their children to the letter of his novel. This is part of where Day gets his ideas. Day's best friend tries to raise his son this way. And every time you check back in with Rousseau, you can almost see him sighing in disgust that no one understood that you shouldn't treat real humans like that.
This book is as much a fun look into the way Enlightenment thought interplayed with modern social customs in the eighteenth century as it is a book on why Day is a ridiculous person. Read it for both reasons. I very much enjoyed this book and would recommend it to any of my friends.