A recurring cultural myth is that of Pygmalian, an artist who sculpted a woman so beautiful that he fell in love with her. After praying to the goddess Venus, he came home one day to his sculpture, Galatea, brought to life. He had literally created his own perfect woman. Contemporary audiences are probably most familiar with the My Fair Lady version of the story, where Professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) bets a friend that he can train the common flower seller Eliza Dolittle (Audrey Hepburn) to pass in high society as a duchess. In How to Create the Perfect Wife, historian Wendy Moore looks at the 18th century attempt of wealthy Georgian landowner Thomas Day to create his own perfect wife by effectively abducting two pre-pubescent girls from a foundling home and subjecting them to a training and education program based on the novel and educational framework Emile by French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
How to Create the Perfect Wife is not very well written. Moore repeats my least favourite historical writer’s flaw of attributing feelings to historical figures based on what the author imagines the figure felt without any actual evidence. For example, one of the orphans (Ann) and Thomas Day travel from the orphanage in the English countryside from which he kidnapped her to London. Moore states: “After the simple formality of institutional life in rural Shropshire, the chaotic clamour of Georgian London must have struck Ann Kingston with a resounding shock” (p. 52). However, she could equally have written “After the simple formality of institutional life in rural Shropshire, the chaotic clamour of Georgian London must have seemed full of life and possibilities to Ann” or “After travelling for many days with a man such as Day, Ann must have been longing for a soft bed and a friendly face.” Any of those could be equally true, so why speculate at all? All historical biographers, please stick with the facts and spare us useless conjecture.
That said, one of the best thing about this book is its meticulous detailed research. Moore, using archival records, existing histories, contemporaneous novels and many first-hand sources paints an excellent picture of Georgian London. Thomas Day’s ‘wife project’ is very different to the other wife project I wrote about recently but, even in his time where single and married women could not hold property or other assets, it was highly unorthodox for a single man to live unchaperoned with two young women. While one of the pair is deemed unsuitable for marriage very soon into the project and is ‘given away’ (urgh I hate this guy so very much), Day is involved with the second girl, who he renames Sabrina, until she is in her late teens and his actions affect both her ability to marry, as her reputation is sullied by her unusual living conditions and her ability to live well, as he provides her with only a small stipend yet his education of her has lead to her being almost completely unemployable. I found it fascinating the extent to which Day’s friends and acquaintances allowed him to continue with his practices, which they seemed to acknowledge as horrible and harmful, because of suspect practices of their own such as keeping a mistress or being involved in an extramarital affair.
The narrative is a bit fractured, with figures just dropping in and out of the main story, but that’s how real life works. I found this a truly fascinating story of power, abuse and historical experiences of being female. It illustrates that domestic violence transcends not just wealth and class but has occurred across time and is closely intertwined with power. I hope that one day as a society we will move past thinking violence and control against women is acceptable, although recent events suggest that time is a long way away.
I give How to Create the Perfect Wife three stars.