Many people know that the musical "My Fair Lady," now playing at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, is based on George Bernard Shaw's 1912 play "Pygmalion." Few know that Shaw's play was inspired by the true (and creepy) story of 18th-century writer and activist Thomas Day who, frustrated with his inability to find a worthy wife, decides to make one.
Biographer Wendy Moore's "How to Create the Perfect Wife: Britain's Most Ineligible Bachelor and His Enlightened Quest to Train the Ideal Mate" tells the tale of Day's bizarre attempt.
Born in 1748 to a wealthy British family, Day was educated at London's best schools and acquainted with other luminaries of the time, such as the poet Anna Seward and scientist Erasmus Darwin, future grandfather of Charles Darwin. Despite his wealth, Day intended to live a frugal existence in a secluded rural retreat devoid of all comforts and diversions, Moore writes.
Even if he'd had Match.com back then, Day would have been hard pressed to find a woman who met his high standards, which included being "pure and virginal as an English country maid, but tough and hardy as a Spartan heroine."
While Day claimed he wanted a clever, well-read spouse who would take part in lively conversations on politics, literature and philosophy, he also wanted a wife who was completely subservient to him at all times. While reading this book, it's hard not to roll your eyes or speak out loud to Day, "Good luck, idiot."
The few women who took an interest in Day, in spite of his eccentric habits and "unorthodox approach to personal hygiene," fled when he told them his requirements in a bride. By the time Day was 21 years old, he'd given up on the idea of ever finding an appropriate spouse among society women. Influenced by the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau on education and society, Day hatched an idea.
With the help of his wealthy friends and connections, Day adopted two orphan girls, one 11 and the other 12, and set out to train and educate them to his specifications. After six months, he decided the younger girl was "invincibly stupid," and shipped her off somewhere. With the other, whom he renamed Sabrina, he began a program of torture designed to "build up" her stamina. The regimen included dropping hot candle wax on her arms, sticking her with pins, immersing her in freezing water and shooting his pistol at her skirts. The girl quietly endured this, and Day's curious friends never intervened.
After more than a year of torment, however, young Sabrina finally got fed up and started to rebel against Day's bizarre demands, just as friends finally started to pressure him to give up his experiment. Day didn't quite relinquish his control, but he did abandon his plan. While the story's ending wasn't dramatic, Sabrina eventually got a happy one.
What's baffling is that, while undeniably intolerant and cruel, Day was very intelligent and progressive. An outspoken advocate for equal education for women and the poor, he later became famous for his anti-slavery activism. Paradoxically, some of his views could even be described as radically feminist by the standards of the day. While most of his contemporaries accepted that women were naturally inferior to men, Day believed that women were potentially as intelligent if they were educated in the same way men were.
Moore's book is clearly well-researched, with details about Georgian-era life, pictures of the main characters in the story and nearly 50 pages of bibliography and notes. Her often humorous tone and smooth storytelling makes the book read like a scandal-rich novel. Day may have failed in creating the perfect wife, but Moore's story of his life succeeds as a perfect cautionary tale.
Angela Decker is a freelance writer in Ashland and can be reached at email@example.com.