How to Create a Perfect Wife

This is an intriguing book by Wendy Moore, a journalist and author who I’d never heard of. The story fills in a lot of gaps in my historical knowledge, especially featuring the poet Thomas Day who I knew from his famous abolitionist poem The Dying Negro and his book on child centred education. He was also close friends with Richard Lovell Edgeworth, the polymath, engineer, Lunar Man and father of novelist Maria with whom he wrote a pioneering book on education.

Thomas Day was a wealthy young gent who wanted a perfect wife. He wanted a woman who could discuss his ideas on philosophy, education and politics, but who would also be totally obedient to him. To modern eyes, and to many of his peers, this combination was impossible – a woman capable of deeply thinking and philosophising was probably an independent thinker, so would not willingly obey a man, at last not for long.

After several attempts at marriage, he decided to follow the philosophy of Rousseau, to obtain a young woman and treat her as a blank slate, to train her to be his ideal woman.

Eighteenth century England attracted a lot of free thinkers from Europe so it seems bizarre that such an act of control freakery could even be considered. But it was also a country with limited social charities, especially for the widows and orphans produced by Britain’s many wars. He managed to find 2 young girls in a workhouse – one for spare, claiming they were apprenticed to his friend Edgeworth, then embarked on one of the strangest, and to modern eyes cruel and unusual, exercise of training the young girls to be tough but obedient to his often bizarre will.

Moore’s research is impressive, and she manages to piece together this strange social experiment, which shines a light not just on British social history, with many of the Lunar Men being involved, but also the changing ideas of childrens’ education and the impact of J.J. Russeau’s theories.

As Scotland on Sunday claims this is “the kind of [non-fiction] that reads like a novel yet couldn’t be made up.”

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