NONFICTION: The true story of an 18th-century Englishman who raises an orphan girl, hoping to mold her into the ideal woman.
Pygmalion, a goldsmith uninterested in the “degraded” women he saw all around him, carved a woman out of ivory. Her fair beauty and purity enchanted him — she was sooo superior to the real women he knew. Predictably enough, he fell in love with her. He made offerings at the festival of Venus: The goddess, whose motives seem a bit obscure, granted his wish and breathed life into his statue. He married her, his perfect mate. One assumes they lived happily ever after.
Cut to the 18th century, in the Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction Department. A 20-year-old man, Thomas Day, has just been jilted for the second time, leaving him humiliated, angry, bitter — and clueless. “Utterly baffled as to why any woman should want to reject him, at the age of twenty Day came to a startling conclusion. Since he had not yet found the right woman, the right woman simply did not exist.”
At this point, it is difficult to fault Day’s logic. Although he was well-educated, intelligent and heir to a substantial fortune, he was scornful of fashion, slovenly and boorish, with appalling table manners and a tendency to “either sit sulkily silent or to stand and declaim his dogmatic views loudly and at length” — not, perhaps, the beau of many young women’s dreams.
Even more off-putting was his view of marital bliss. Inspired by the Stoics, Day dreamed of living in rural seclusion, in a cottage devoid of all comforts or diversions, with only his wife — the perfect wife — for company. She should be pure and virginal, contemptuous of fashion, as physically strong and hardy as a man, as intelligent and well-read as his male friends, capable of discussing politics, philosophy, literature, and science — and totally subservient to his every whim and opinion. And — wait for it — since love was “only a fiction of the imagination that no rational being should indulge” — the perfect wife would fit herself into Day’s mold out of a purely logical attachment to him.
Just after coming into his inheritance at age 21, having concluded, with some justification, that she was nowhere to be found, Day set out to create his perfect wife. He selected two orphan girls from the Foundling Hospital, one a 12-year-old auburn-haired beauty he called Sabrina, the other a lovely 11-year-old blonde he named Lucretia. Under the fiction that they were being apprenticed to domestic service, the girls were placed into Day’s care. He took them to France, where he could more fully “protect” them from outside influences, and trained them to read and write, to adopt his philosophical and political views, to unfailingly perform domestic duties, and to endure physical hardships. Concluding that Lucretia was “invincibly stupid,” he sent her off to a real apprenticeship, concentrating his attention entirely on Sabrina.
Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time. Wendy Moore’s narrative brilliantly delineates the political and intellectual forces that shaped and nurtured Day, a heady — and deeply contradictory — blend of Romanticism, empiricism and radicalism. Day himself emerges as a rounded and not entirely unsympathetic character; his friends and detractors are depicted with equal liveliness. The story of Day’s experiment was taken up in fictional guise by Maria Edgeworth, Anthony Trollope and even Henry James. I haven’t read any of them, but I’d be willing to bet that Moore’s fascinating nonfictional account outshines them all.
Patricia Hagen teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.