Thursday, June 13, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: How to Create the Perfect Wife. Britain's Most Ineligible Bachelor and His Enlightened Quest to Train the Ideal Mate by Wendy Moore

I’ve been on a strange non-fiction binge lately. I have no idea why. My most recent read is How to Create the Perfect Wife. Britain’s Most Ineligible Bachelor and His Enlightened Quest to Train the Ideal Mate by Wendy Moore. I don’t remember where I saw this one mentioned, but the description grabbed me. I checked my library’s catalogue and there it was, so I added it to my Library Challenge list (hosted by Book Dragon’s Lair.)

How to Create the Perfect Wife is a remarkably detailed, thoroughly researched recounting of a true-life Pygmalion-like undertaking that is as awful as a true-life version would naturally be. In the second half of the eighteenth century, a bizarre young man named Thomas Day, independently wealthy, educated, yet arrogant and lacking in social graces, finds himself rejected by one woman after another. (Reading the descriptions of his social interactions, it’s difficult to imagine why any woman would have allowed him to reach the courting or engagement stage, but a few actually did.) Convinced that the fault does not lie with himself, he decides that women are ruined by their upbringing. If he wants to find the perfect woman, he will have to create her himself. Cherry-picking Rousseau’s ideas on enlightened education, using Emile as a rough guide, Day thinks that if he can catch a girl before society ruins her, he can mold her to suit him properly.

Day’s ideal woman must be attractive and intelligent. She should be able to carry on conversations about all manner of things, but she will always defer to his superior judgment. She must be physically hardy, hard-working, and submissive. His intention is to move away to a secluded cottage somewhere, away from society, away from servants, to live under primitive conditions, and have his wife cater to his every whim.

Since no woman in her right mind would agree to such a scheme, Day cooks up a plan. He manages to remove two female orphans, aged eleven and twelve, from a Foundling Hospital. Although he tells the hospital that he would be taking them to a married friend to be apprenticed as housemaids, he lied. (Single men were not allowed to adopt young girls.) He secrets the two girls away and begins an education program intended to groom them as perfect future brides. Whichever one succeeds best, he will marry.

The plan seems destined to fail, particularly as Moore details the methods Day uses: dripping hot wax on the girl, sticking her with pins, firing a pistol into her skirts. What makes the story particularly interesting is that Day is unable to keep his project hidden. Eventually, he chooses one girl, Sabrina, to keep and sends the other on her way. Sabrina is introduced to her -for lack of a better word- "benefactor’s" friends. They become aware of what he is doing. They are interested and wary. They gossip. But no one does anything to rescue Sabrina, not even when they hear about the sadistic trials he puts her through.

The book also gives details about the personal lives of the people surrounding Day and Sabrina. It was an odd crew all around. And we follow them all through to the end of their days. It’s impressive that Wendy Moore tracks down so much information on so many people.

Overall, it’s an interesting, readable account of an eighteenth century sociopath and the cruel experiment he performed on a vulnerable young girl. Some of the narrative became a little repetitive but the material is well-organized and Moore covers a lot of ground.

If you like quirky social history, this is a well-written and bizarre tale.


  1. True story, eh? Sounds like a strange kind of read that would both creep me out, make me mad and yet I would have to find out what happens.