Firstly, I would like to say that the subtitle of this book: ‘The true story of one gentleman, two orphans and an experiment to create the ideal woman’, does not do the content of this work justice. How to Create the Perfect Wife focuses on the socially awkward and eccentric Thomas Day, a gentleman who was born on 22nd June 1748 in the East end of London. After his father’s death one year after he was born, he became the heir to a substantial fortune which would ensure that he would never have to work. He was, it would seem, very intelligent and had a true desire to do good in the world. In 1773, he and his friend, John Bicknell produced one of the earliest published attacks against slavery, a poem called The Dying Negro, which opened readers’ eyes to the cruelty and injustice of slavery at a time when it was also very fashionable. Day was not afraid to be unique and to stand up for what he believed in. He did not care about fashionable clothes, or about leading a frivolous party lifestyle, though he could certainly have afforded to. Instead, he wanted nothing more than to live a quiet, frugal and self-sufficient life, far away from the bustle and materialism of London society. He took his inspiration from the popular philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and decided that to complete this idyllic dream, he would need a devoted, humble and hard-working wife by his side. And here, we have to flaw in his character; the extraordinary experiment that Day set upon, with the full knowledge of his closest friends, to adopt two young orphans and raise them to be his future wives. When one proved more suitable than the other, he would abandon the scheme for her and concentrate on the winner.
The two girls that Thomas Day chose were Ann and Dorcas, or as he later named them, Sabrina and Lucretia. Moore gives a very moving account of their early lives in the foundling hospital and of the lives of the women who had to give up their babies to such a fate at this time. She goes to great lengths to explain the status of someone with no known parentage, which was essentially non-existent in 18th century Britain. No doubt Day felt he was doing these girls a favour then, and perhaps in some ways he did. Both were provided with an education and with money as Day had promised in a contract he drew up with a friend before the scheme went ahead. The life of the girls under Day’s guardianship was extraordinary, as is the reaction of the people with whom they mixed. Moore regularly draws comparisons with modern sensibilities and invites us to question how such a man would be viewed today.
Yet this book focuses on so much more than this one social experiment. In it can be found a wealth of information about 18th century society, the lives of the rich and the poor, the laws at the time, and an insight into the lives of some very interesting characters. Day’s close friend, Richard Lovell Edgeworth should have a book all to himself. Poignantly, each chapter is named after an important woman in Day’s life, and I cannot help but feel that this is a deliberate choice of Moore’s to give status to these second-class citizens, whom Day really did not seem able to understand or empathise with. Moore delves into what their thoughts and feelings might have been. This is difficult with the likes of Ann and Dorcas, whose early experiences were overshadowed by the way in which Day wished to portray them. But Moore’s research is meticulous and they emerge from this book as full of life and as real as the men whose lives were so much more heavily documented.
The writing of this book is extremely compelling and after reading it, I felt that there was something tragic about the life of Thomas Day and indeed some of the women who featured. That is what struck me – what Day did was undeniably wrong and at the very least, selfish, yet he did not intend to be a selfish person. It was in his very nature and his province to help others. So what we have here is a comprehensive account of a complex human being – one who seems to jump out of the pages at you as if he were flesh, and forces you to ask uncomfortable questions, to feel disgust at certain behaviour and to try to understand why it took place. I think that’s all one can ask for from a biography. It is simply fascinating.