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How to Build a Better Wife

The perverse preoccupation of a 19th-century gentleman

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Wendy Moore’s excellent new book, How to Create the Perfect Wife, joins a long list of “How To” texts that fail to divulge the secrets promised by their titles. (How to have a “One Hour Orgasm,” how to ensure “A Great Day Everyday,” etc.). Moore’s history, however, distinguishes itself from these other works of art because its tone is dry and amused, and the author’s approach to her subject is ironic. Even her subtitle—Britain’s Most Ineligible Bachelor and His Enlightened Quest to Train the Ideal Mate—has a certain sting. And the story she tells is simply astonishing. 

I admit to having felt a certain trepidation after reading Moore’s hilarious opening chapter, because it wasn’t obvious that she got the joke. But her understated comic style is actually perfect for the material. She begins in the spring of 1769, where we are introduced to the 20-year-old Londoner Thomas Day: “Tall and well built with curling black hair and large hazel eyes, he might have been considered handsome were it not for his stooped shoulders, the severe marks of smallpox that pitted his face and his general dishevelment.” This is somewhat akin to saying that Woody Allen would have played in the NBA were it not for his height, weight, and athletic skills. But Moore is very subtly drawing a picture of a complete egomaniac and bore. When the possibility arises of Day marrying a member of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, we are told that the young woman, “managing to overlook his lack of grooming and poor social skills … was moved by the powerful monologues Day delivered on improving the lot of humanity.” 

This broad perspective in no way undermined Day’s focus on what Jeeves would have called “the psychology of the individual.” Day told anyone who would listen that he wanted to live an isolated and barren existence with the ideal woman. He lectured his Anglo-Irish fiancé about the irrationality of love, which quickly prompted her to have doubts. He comforted himself with the thought that she would “scarcely find another Character she can coolly & deliberately think comparable to mine,” but to no avail. She left, which, in Moore’s words, and mirroring the deep thinking of many men who came both before and after Day, “confirmed his suspicions that women were universally shallow, fickle, illogical, and untrustworthy.” However, in his own way, Day believed that women were not made this way. Society educated them to be silly, irrational little things. If he could educate a woman himself, he might be able to find one who was both his intellectual match, and, as Moore phrases it, “completely subservient to his wishes at all times.” He would create the perfect wife.

Day’s ideas were not occurring in a vacuum. He was a fan of Rousseau (and the Stoics), and he spent an inordinate amount of time pursuing his version of Rousseau’s philosophy. Rousseau essentially argued that man was born uncorrupted, but would fall victim to civilization’s inherent weaknesses: “everything degenerates in the hands of man.” With a pure education and an embrace of nature, however, people could maintain the innate goodness that they were granted at birth.

In one of his many low moments, Humbert Humbert has the following thought:

I might have her produce eventually a nymphet with my blood in her exquisite veins, a Lolita the Second, who would be eight or nine around 1960, when I would still be dans la force d'age; indeed, the telescopy of my mind, or un-mind, was strong enough to distinguish in the remoteness of time a vieillard encore vert—or was it green rot?—bizarre, tender, salivating Dr. Humbert, practicing on supremely lovely Lolita the Third the art of being a granddad.

Day’s plan is nowhere near as perverse as Humbert’s, but it is decidedly bizarre and sinister. Since women were contaminated by fripperies at an early age, the only solution was to raise a young girl, educate her in a solitary and severe manner, and then train her to be his wife. Day, at age 21, decided that the solution was to adopt two young, presumably innocent and eminently impressionable girls from an orphanage: “Will it be possible to fortify [their minds] in such a Manner, that the Pleasures of the World will make no Impressions upon [them], because they are Irrational?” Day’s two charges, aged 11 and 12, would embark upon his training. After less than a year, however, Day narrowed his attention to one girl, Sabrina, and much of Moore’s narrative concerns Day’s relationship with his chosen one.

Moore makes it very clear that Day’s method was about more than intellectual tutoring. He wanted a woman who was physically strong, since the couple would be living a solitary existence away from the world. “Day embarked on a series of trials designed to accustom Sabrina to extremes of cold, pain, and terror”; page after page details these mental and physical humiliations. Day would present Sabrina with gifts, and then burn them. He would tell her secret stories, and tempt her to reveal them to others (which would in turn bring punishment). Eventually, however, Sabrina would fail him. An incident involving her wearing the wrong clothes (i.e., clothes not to his liking) led to a break between the two of them. He just wouldn’t have her anymore, and she was cast out.

Moore largely restricts her narrative to the main personalities, but there are glimpses at the political happenings of the age. She shows a real understanding of why some of Day’s ideas were actually considered liberal and progressive. Mary Wollstonecraft celebrated Day’s thoughts on female education; Erasmus Darwin (the grandfather of Charles) drifted in and out of Day’s circle (he and Day shared strong Abolitionist sentiments); and Day himself welcomed American Independence. Moore captures his contradictions well (this hater of slavery “secretly maintained a teenage girl who was completely subordinate to his commands and whims”); what he embodied, in particularly extreme form, is a British type reminiscent of men like Dickens a century later, who could manage to be liberal on many subjects and fanatically reactionary on others. As was seen in the eugenics movement, certain ideas embraced by progressives have shown themselves to be, er, inconsistent with liberty.

Day’s story takes several more twists before his death at age 41. But it is Sabrina who emerges as the heart of the book; she managed to show the resilience Day always claimed to crave in his female companion, but rather than using it to enrich his life, she used it to resist him. It’s probably this fact, along with Moore’s skill as a narrator, that allows her to take such a light tone for so much of the proceedings. This book is not nearly as funny as Lolita—no shame in that—but it manages to amuse the reader in its description of horrible things. The picture of Day is so expertly drawn and so withering without being heavy-handed, that it manages to count as a form of moral condemnation.

Moore never really says so, but the final takeaway from the story might be, “How Little Things Change.” Day, in all his absurdity and wickedness, comes across as an almost perfect example of a type of male chauvinism that still exists today. Women are too serious or flightly to take seriously. They are too irrational and moody and unhinged. What a man must do is lecture them, and teach them, and mold them into something right and proper. The ultimate lesson is that a man who thinks a perfect wife can be created is unlikely to be a perfect husband.

Follow Isaac Chotiner on Twitter @IChotiner.