Unlike, say, The MILF Diet*, How to Create the Perfect Wife is a fascinating, fun to read, and well-researched nonfiction title. However, its subject is…locoballs, to put it mildly.
By the standards of 18th-century Europe, Englishman Thomas Day (1748-1789) was a capital “e” Enlightened fellow: poet, freethinker, philosopher, polemicist, ardent abolitionist, philanthropist, and…er, international human trafficker.
Yes, that’s right. So where to begin? Ah yes, how about:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
But what if there are no acceptable brides to be had?
Or rather, what if numerous acceptable brides (very sensibly) turn down the single man’s proposals — which include stipulations such as “We will live in an unheated hovel the middle of nowhere,” “You will wear clothes that make burlap sacks seem both comfortable AND stylish,” and “Oh, by the way, you will be completely subservient to my every whim” ?
It probably didn’t help that, in the eyes of his contemporaries “[his] exterior was not at that time prepossessing” or, in the author’s words, “Thomas Day was not the most obviously eligible of bachelors,” noting his stooped shoulders, smallpox scars, disheveled clothing, and (with the exception of baths in icy streams) exceedingly poor personal hygiene — never a slave to fashion, he preferred not to wash, comb, or even cut his long, lank, and tangled hair.
But my impression is that the reason Mr. Day consistently failed to get some was because he was the kind of deluded, self-absorbed @$$hole who genuinely believes himself to be a ‘nice guy’. You know, the ones who blame all of fickle womankind when one individual girl turns him down, for any number of valid reasons that are nobody’s business but her own. Maybe you’ve had similar interactions?
Thomas Day: Marry me, O Gentle Lady I Literally Just Met, and we shall spend the rest of our days in the most Perfect Conjugal Bliss, with you toiling by my side as my Devoted Helpmeet until you drop dead from overwork or die in childbed!
Young Lady of the Minor Gentry: No thank you, Mr. Day.
Thomas Day: WHAT DO YOU MEAN, NO?!?!?!?!
Young Lady of the Minor Gentry: To be honest, I am just not that into you.
Thomas Day: You loathsome toad! You vile bitch-whore! I can’t believe I wasted my time proposing marriage to you, you ugly, feeble-minded strumpet! I hope you ROT in HELL!
Why, then, the single man must train a potential helpmeet. Or preferably, multiple potential helpmeets. You know, in case one doesn’t make it past the bridal semi-finals, or must be disqualified on grounds of failing to live up to Rousseau’s teachings.
Because Mr. Thomas Day was quite enamored of Rousseau.
Not the one from LOST. No, the neurotic, incredibly paranoid French curmudgeon who wrote Emile, and who is thus often credited with penning the first-ever parenting handbook — despite the fact that he himself abandoned the five (count ’em, FIVE!) children he sired with his longterm, live-in mistress…not because he couldn’t afford to take care of them or anything so prosaic, but simply because he didn’t really want them in the first place.
So off waddled Mr. Day to the nearest foundling home, where he requested a pair of prepubscent girls…which, it seems, one could do in those days, especially if you colluded with your equally skeevy best friends and flat-out lied about your intentions. And astonishingly, at least to this modern reader, he obtained them.
Day spirited the children away to an isolated cottage in France, renamed them “Sabrina” and “Lucretia,” and established a rigorous training regimen incorporating both intellectual pursuits including Latin, philosophy, and astronomy, as well as physical challenges designed to test their mettle, such as dripping hot wax on them until they screamed and firing on them with pistols.*
This was practically the reality TV of its day. Indeed, when I told My Fella, he responded, “So, it’s like Pygmalion meets The Bachelor?” And yes, it kind of is. Except much, much ickier:
“Two preteen girls. One wealthy Georgian weirdo.The MOST INSANE COURTSHIP of the CENTURY.”
Tagline: “Only one can be Wife for Life — for better or for worse!”
I can’t help but wonder: did they have to embroider enticing samplers? Or engage in harpsichord duels?** Were there parlor confessionals?
And did they have catchphrases, like
“I didn’t get abducted from the orphanage under false pretenses to make friends!”
or (and I like this one, personally)
“A Bride’s gotta have Pride!”
Although, as it turned out, neither girl became Thomas Day’s cherished Wife for Life. Technically, Sabrina “won” — if you can call it that; I wouldn’t — mainly because Lucretia was quarrelsome, as 11-year-old kidnap victims are wont to be towards their abductors. Also, Day was not convinced that Lucretia could satisfy him intellectually (he called her “invincibly stupid”). Though, really, given the man’s predilections, could anyone in their right mind have met his standards?
Nevertheless, Day told Lucretia to hang up her corset and exit the cottage, and decided that Sabrina would be his wife.
First of all, at no point did Day actually bother to inform his intended of his…um, intentions.
And secondly, unsure of what to do with his ill-gotten teenage slave, he packed her off to a boarding school for several years, where she acquired — in traditional girl’s boarding school fashion — a basic 18th-century education and all the social graces appropriate to a young woman of her (admittedly unique) status in society. Day paid her tuition, but rarely visited or wrote to her. Sabrina, for her part, complied with his orders — no doubt aware that the most prudent course of action for a kidnapped orphan is to obey the man upon whom one is entirely dependent for food, shelter, and just about everything else in life.
If Day had merely continued his benign neglect of Sabrina, she might well have escaped his clutches, married a tradesman, and lived out a completely ordinary life — like runner-up Lucretia, in fact.
However, some years later and in the wake of several unsuccessful proposals to other women, Thomas Day once again “noticed” Sabrina.
Because, during her time at boarding school, she had blossomed from a pretty and biddable child into a lovely and kind young woman. So Day thought that maybe he *would* marry her after all, although once again it did not occur to him to ask her, or even inform her directly of his decision. Instead, she learned of his matrimonial aspirations from other people and then asked him outright what the deal was…and was subsequently horrified when he insisted that, like it or not, she’d be his wife.
Although the historical record does not indicate exactly how Sabrina managed to avoid marrying Day, who — in retaliation — made her the unofficial apprentice of a local dressmaker, we do know that he continued to maintain strict control over every aspect of her life. He forced her to turn down at least one marriage proposal (from an amiable apothecary), and threatened to cut off her allowance if she displeased him. (Since she had neither a spouse nor a trade to ply, she had no other means of making a living.)
Ultimately, she ended up marrying one of Day’s cronies, a desultory sort of lawyer by the name of Mr. Bicknell…whose main virtues, as far as I can tell, were that he was neither a sociopath nor a sexual predator. Although, since he was one of Day’s co-conspirators in the wife-training experiment, this is very faint praise indeed.
Bicknell turned out to be an ok-but-not-great husband: he spent a few years impregnating her while simultaneously squandering his fortune; then he keeled over, leaving Sabrina a penniless widow with two small children to raise. Through the intervention of friends and Good Samaritans, she eventually became a housekeeper at a boys’ school and spent the rest of her life in the now-established manner of middle-class individuals: working her ass off to pay the bills while attempting to fly under the radar.
Because being the child slave-bride of a philosophically-minded madman is not exactly something a woman chooses to advertise if she wants to hold down a job or be received in polite company.
And as for Thomas Day, well, he too found his perfect match. And by perfect match, I mean a prim heiress who (like her spouse) wrote execrable poetry about Virtue and other capitalized abstract nouns***, obeyed his orders never to contact her family, helped him establish a sort of working farm in the countryside that sounds an awful lot like a gulag, and never, ever attempted to escape. Ok, a couple of times she attempted to escape — but she always came back to him (or was brought back to him).
And they lived happily ever after? I guess? I don’t know. If by “happily ever after” you mean “one day Thomas Day fell off a horse and died, Halle-f*cking-lujah” then yes. That.
I’m not sure what practical lessons one can draw from this book, save that Georgian England was one seriously f*cked up place. However, I’m also not sure we as readers can point fingers — as this blog consistently demonstrates, every place in every era (especially our own) is seriously f*cked up, because each and every one of God’s children is perfectly horrid in his or her own special way.