The people now on this planet who have heard of “The History of Sandford and Merton, A Work Intended for the Use of Children,” probably could gather in a high-school English classroom with plenty of room to spare, but after the publication in England of the first of its three volumes in 1783 it became, Wendy Moore reports, “an immediate success and would remain one of the best-selling and best-loved children’s books for more than a century.” Moore further reports that the book earned “lasting fame” for its author, but that seems dubious at best, as the number of people now on the planet who have heard of Thomas Day probably could gather in the high-school biology classroom down the hall, also with room to spare.
But however thick the mists into which Day and his book disappeared many ages ago, he was a certifiable piece of work, and Moore has performed a service of sorts by bringing him to our attention. Moore, a British freelance journalist with an interest in the oddities of her country’s history (of which there are many) and especially those of the 18th century, previously wrote about the eminent society physician John Hunter in “The Knife Man” and, in “Wedlock,” about Mary Eleanor Bowes, who escaped a dreadful marriage and sued successfully for divorce at a time when that bordered on the unthinkable. Moore is a sedulous researcher and an agreeable prose stylist, if at times inclined to couch her research in breezy chattiness.
Born in 1748 in London, Day was the son of a prosperous father who died when he was very young, leaving him in the care of a mother whom he adored and, in time, a stepfather whom he detested. He was “a solemn boy with a strong urge to do good and a fierce sense of self-entitlement,” and by the time he had reached his late teens “he was certainly clever, undoubtedly well-educated and shortly due to inherit a considerable fortune, [but his] personal attractions were decidedly marred by his comical appearance and unconventional manners.” Moreover his “gloomy, melancholic outlook and dogmatic, overbearing manner did nothing to enhance his allure.” This was a time when people of both sexes often married for money, yet women to whom he became engaged had the odd habit of refusing to follow through on the commitment, no doubt largely because, truth be told, he really did not much like any women except his mother:
“With his forward-thinking views on liberty and human rights, Thomas Day might have been expected to march in the vanguard of female emancipation. In fact, his views on women were ludicrously old-fashioned even by the norms of his day. Embarked on his crusade to virtue, like a medieval knight in armor, Day saw himself as the protector and defender of weak and helpless women — whether they liked it or not. While still a student at Oxford, Day developed a perverse fixation with the concept of female purity and an intense horror at the idea of female seduction. . . . In his mind, women could fit one of only two roles: as a pure and taintless virginal maiden or a helpless victim deflowered by a brutish male predator, a stance that no doubt echoed his childhood shock at his mother’s apparent seduction by his stepfather.”
Yet however twisted his views of women, Day most emphatically wanted to marry one of them. After being spurned by his fiancee, Margaret Edgeworth, the sister of his friend Robert Lovell Edgeworth, Day decided that the only way he could find a wife ideally suited to him would be to fashion one himself. Accordingly he went to the Orphan Hospital at Shrewsbury, “a country branch of the Foundling Hospital in London,” and arranged that the 12-year-old Ann Kingston — “slim and pretty,” with “auburn ringlets and brown eyes,” a decade younger than he — be apprenticed to his friend Richard Edgeworth until the age of 21. Then, fearing that he might not have chosen the right future Mrs. Day, he also acquired the services of the 11-year-old Dorcas Car. He changed Ann’s name to Sabrina and Dorcas’s to Lucretia, and almost immediately set about educating them to achieve perfection.
As Moore says, today no adoption agency in its right mind would permit a couple of bachelors to walk off with a couple of pretty young girls, but this was a different time, and Day “was a rich landowner with influence and connections living in a man’s world; they were powerless girls, born into poverty and branded with the shame of illegitimacy, without friends, family or rights,” so Day bought them “as easily as he might buy two shoe buckles.” He seems to have had no premarital sexual designs on them, but, inspired by the model of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, he was determined to teach them writing and arithmetic, to train them in domestic skills so that the chosen one would be able to “serve his every domestic need,” and so that they could converse with him “on weighty matters with intellectual interest” he “adopted the curriculum that Rousseau laid down . . . in order to teach the girls the basic principles of geography, physics and astronomy through the pioneering method of practical demonstration and experiment.”
Day was an outspoken opponent of slavery at a time when abolitionism was only beginning to assert itself, but it never seems to have crossed his exceedingly strange mind that he had, in Sabrina and Lucretia, two little slaves of his very own. In time he decided that Sabrina was the brighter and more malleable of the two, and apprenticed Lucretia to a milliner in London; eventually she made “a happy marriage to a draper.” Sabrina was rather less lucky. She stayed on, doing well in her lessons but being subjected to “a series of trials designed to accustom [her] to extremes of cold, pain and terror.” Any sane person would characterize these trials as torture, but though Moore does not explore the matter as thoroughly as she might, there is reason to doubt that Day, for all his brilliance in some respects, was of sound mind.
Day never married Sabrina, never even got close. In 1771, when she was about to turn 14, he tired of his educational endeavors and packed her off to boarding school. He concentrated instead on life among the illuminati in the pleasant little town of Lichfield and returned to the quest for a wife. Thus his pattern of broken engagements continued until at last he settled on Esther Milnes, who not merely was “clever, amiable and wealthy” but, astonishingly enough, was willing and eager to comply with “his determination to live in romantic isolation with only books and a wife for company.” They did marry and managed to be (or seem) happy: “In intellect, interests and ideas they were ideally suited; prim, philanthropic and passionate about poetry, Esther was a mirror image of her husband.” They had no children, for which posterity may be grateful, but which does leave one wondering how Day managed to write such a successful children’s book.
As for Sabrina, she became a favorite among the intellectuals of Lichfield and in time married an old friend of Day’s, with whom she had two sons. Her husband died only three years into their marriage, leaving her “alone again — only now she had no income and two small children to bring up on her own.” This she did remarkably well, though her younger son was infuriated when he learned as a young man of his mother’s history and was mortified that she was illegitimate. Sabrina weathered that as she had weathered everything else. The young Henry James learned of her story and told it, thinly disguised, in his first novel, “Watch and Ward,” and presumably George Bernard Shaw was inspired by it, as well as by the tales of Ovid, when he wrote “Pygmalion.” As Moore says, the dream of creating the perfect woman should stay “firmly in the realms of fiction,” but Thomas Day tried to make it a reality, in the process providing only “a sobering lesson” in human vanity.
HOW TO CREATE THE PERFECT WIFE
Britain’s Most Ineligible Bachelor and His Enlightened Quest to Train the Ideal Mate
By Wendy Moore
Basic. 343 pp. $27.99