If you want to learn how to create the perfect wife, you should not read this book. You should make an emergency appointment with reality and remain under self-imposed house arrest until help arrives. If you are a man in search of a tolerably compatible partner, just keep looking. If you are a woman, read Caitlin Moran’s timely How to be a Woman (it doesn’t matter whether you’re looking for anyone or not — just read it).
In 1769 Thomas Day was a single man (aged 21), in possession of a good fortune who (therefore) must be in want of a wife. Though Day was charitable to the poor, opposed slavery and refused to kill a spider, these appear to have been his only merits. Slovenly in his dress, tedious in his conversation (‘Mr Day always talked like a book,’ one contemporary attested), intolerant in his social dealings and demonstrating an ‘undisguised contempt for the female mind’, he found future Mrs Days were hardly forming an orderly queue.
Nevertheless, Thomas Day rationalised his lack of luck in the wife-finding department by attributing it to the general failings of the female sex. There was no woman good enough for him. The only solution was to create one.
Influenced by Rousseau’s theories on education, which viewed the infant as a tabula rasa, which could be left to ‘civilisation’ to write upon (and corrupt) but which the careful parent could cultivate by ‘natural education’, Day decided that if he could only get hold of a female child of the right age, isolate her from negative cultural influences and monopolise her education for a few years, he could manufacture the ideal wife the more usual channels had failed to supply.
With astonishing ease (and the aid of a few barefaced lies), Day succeeded in acquiring 12-year-old Ann Kingston from an orphanage (she had been left as a baby at the London Foundling Hospital), renamed her Sabrina and enthusiastically embarked on her training. He not only decreed what she should or should not think, do, say or value but aimed to make her hardy by employing no domestic staff — she was expected to do everything necessary to run his substantial domestic establishment on her own, while keeping up with her lessons. She complained, but probably not enough.
Breeding hardiness was also part of Rousseau’s scheme — he was later appalled when he learnt to what privations his readers had subjected their offspring — and to this end, Day routinely dropped hot sealing- wax on Sabrina’s bare shoulders and fired a gun directly at her (loaded with powder, but no ball — but she wasn’t to know that, the first time, anyway). In both cases she was required neither to cry out nor flinch. She was made to stand chin deep in a lake, fully dressed (she could not swim) and then dry out ‘naturally’ lying in a field. On quiet nights in he just pricked her with pins.
Imagine the delight of a teenage girl who has only ever known the orphanage uniform of brown wool and the plain dresses she is required to wear by her master being ceremoniously presented with a large box of fashionable, well-made clothes. She is allowed to inspect them, turn them over, imagine herself in them, enjoy her extreme good fortune in the gift. Then she is ordered to throw them all on the fire, and stay to watch them turn to ashes.
These tests were designed to train Sabrina eschew vanity and to do her master’s bidding without question and to suffer without complaint — all most necessary qualities in his ideal bride, we are by this time agreeing. To tell you the end of the story would render reading the book redundant, and despite some grammatical howlers and inaccurate comments on contemporary norms (particularly regarding the upbringing of the children of the poor), Moore tells a good story. Nowhere, however, is she better than on the procedures of the London Foundling Hospital, and tracing the trajectory of her ‘foundlings’. As a champion of the lost she finds her own most authentic and compelling voice.
Anyone who has a problem with Moran’s How to be a Woman would do well to reacquaint themselves with the untrammelled power any man of reasonable means would still have over any woman if women hadn’t eventually started behaving badly and embarrassingly. Perhaps Moore’s and Moran’s books should be read in tandem by a younger generation, or by an older generation that has simply forgotten to remember.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 23 February 2013