How to Create the Perfect Wife by Wendy Moore
The first time I watched My Fair Lady with my mother, I was disgusted when she sighed over Eliza returning to Professor Higgins as “romantic.” (Keep in mind, this was the thick of the Wombat Years, so it took very little to anger me.) Eliza, a spitting tigress of a slip of a woman, had spent the whole musical suffering under his tyrannical hand. Plus, she had a love interest—the adorable Freddie—and even had a whole song about wanting him to be more direct in his affections. (Were this tumblr, I might refer to it as a “WE SHOULD TOTALLY MAKE OUT” song.) George Bernard Shaw wrote Pygmalion to poke fun at the Galatea myth, and he, like myself, was infuriated that the musical adaptation pulled this.
But the ending persists because people are attracted to the idea of creating the perfect mate. (And the narrative possibilities, from Pygmalion to The Bride of Frankenstein, are pretty juicy.) I’ve long been puzzled by the concept of a “type”—not so much in having one (my own preference for tall dark femmes has been making itself screamingly clear as of late), but the idea of adhering to it so militantly that you decide that the world actually doesn’t contain someone you could make a go of it with, so you’d better make your own… I’m a pretty DIY person myself, but that is just eight kinds of horrifying.
Which is just the rubbernecking reason why I picked up How to Create the Perfect Wife after reading Laura Miller’s review on Salon.com. Independently wealthy British author and abolitionist Thomas Day held so firm to his stoic, austere, and frankly misogynistic worldview that all his romantic relationships died swift, unhappy deaths. The intelligent, confident, and independent women in the upper-class circles he traveled would sometimes find him appealingly windswept and Romantic, but as soon as they got a whiff of what he considered “married bliss,” they reconsidered their options. As Moore wryly understates, “There was just something about Day’s vision of married bliss in a remote hovel in complete subservience to his whim that apparently did not appeal” (144). Instead of putting two and two together and realizing that the problem might have been him (and his infamously sloppy ways, a result of his disdain for frivolous things like “manners” and “respect”), he decided to build his own. He got a hold of two orphan girls (because you could just do that in Georgian England) and decided to raise them according to Rousseau’s Emile, with his own modifications to create the perfect helpmate: an intelligent, comely, artless, and unworldly lass who would adore nothing more than to listen to his rants and lectures about society and, of course, how women should behave. Why two? Well, just in case of them didn’t turn out “right.” (Day saw no conflict between his abolitionist views and the fact that he had an orphan or two utterly in his thrall.)
Neither did, of course. The girls, rechristened Sabrina and Lucretia, grew up and proved themselves to be people, not experiment fodder. Lucretia was dismissed first, when Day concluded that she was too stupid—luckily for her. Sabrina remained in Day’s “care” (she was legally under the protection of one of Day’s friends, Richard Lovell Edgeworth; Day sprung the responsibility on him after he’d brought her home from the orphanage) for a much longer time. While she responded well to Day’s intellectual challenges, she, unsurprisingly, was not happy about having hot wax dripped on her arms or being shot at to test her physical and spiritual fortitude. As she grew older, Day paid less and less attention to her, although he did, eventually, reveal his scheme to her, at her own request. Sabrina, who had never been informed of his designs, refused.
In How to Create the Perfect Wife, Moore commits the best revenge against Day’s scheme—she makes Sabrina into a living, breathing person, instead of simply the inspiration for Henry James’ Watch and Ward and other modern Pygmalion stories. The perfect riposte to Day’s treatment and subjugation of Sabrina is to see her as a hearty woman in her seventies, the beloved housekeeper of Charles Burney (brother of Fanny) and his school, having transcended her strange origins. Additionally, there’s a slighter contrast when Edgeworth, after the death of his first wife, marries his beloved Honora Syned, who wisely turned down Day. While their family life isn’t perfect (Edgeworth raised his son in the Rousseau method and it really, really backfired), their relationship is sweet and far more egalitarian than you would expect for Georgian England. Watching the Edgeworths in their happiness as Day glowers about the fact that no intelligent woman has arms rounded and white enough for him is a delicious bit of schadenfreude.
Moore is much more sympathetic to Day than I am. As you tear through the narrative (it’s gripping, well-paced stuff!), it sometimes feels like a wacky comedy of errors, especially once Sabrina is directly out of harm’s way and with friends like Maria Edgeworth and Fanny Burney. (Although no one who knew about the scheme ever told her about it.) I would have loved to see Day get some comeuppance for his presumptions, assumptions, and mistreatment, but, alas, nonfiction is not fiction. Day, miraculously, does find a wife—Esther Milnes, an educated, upper-class woman who fell so hard for him that she didn’t mind the fact that, once secluded in their remote home, she would not be allowed to contact her family. Love, it seems, does find a way, even when faced with someone with such particular and bullheaded notions like Thomas Day.
Bottom line: The gripping, well-paced, and just plain bizarre story of how a Georgian gentleman decided to create his perfect wife by raising two orphans according to Rousseau and picking a “winner.” Well worth a read.
I rented this book from the public library.