Sunday, 8 September 2013

How to Create the Perfect Wife, by Wendy Moore

Why I read it: Slate review

Podcasts: WGN Radio

Brow: The hook might seem low-brow, but the book is about a mostly-forgotten 18th century intellectual and his bizarre quest to find the perfect woman, making it upper-middle brow.

Summary: Thomas Day, 18th century intellectual, rich guy, and all-around weirdo, picked up Rousseau's Emile and became obsessed with it. Emile is the story of a fictional little boy who is raised completely in a child-centred learning environment: if he wants to learn something, he asks someone to teach him, otherwise he is left alone. He walks around outside in winter with no shoes on. He is fearless, having never learned to fear, and intellectual, having never been constrained by a classroom. He is, in short, the perfect citizen, fully self-governing. A lot of wealthy eccentrics read the book and decided to apply Rousseau's philosophy to their own children, which mostly ended in disaster. Rousseau also published a companion book about Sophie, the perfect woman, who is raised to be governed by her husband. Not a lot of people tried out this experiment, because it so obviously sucks, but Day, as I said, was obsessed by Rousseau's philosophy. He also wanted to live deep in the countryside and devote all of his time to doing good works. He wanted to have as few servants as possible, meaning that any Mrs Day would have to be prepared to give up any hopes of spending the Day wealth on pretty frocks and spend her time cooking, cleaning, sewing, and accepting her husband's criticism. His wealth managed to attract a few women who agreed to get engaged to him, but as the reality of what he expected of them dawned on them, they all backed out, only to be dismissed as 'bitches.' So eventually Day realised that he would need to make his perfect wife from scratch. Pretending he was procuring servant girls for a married friend, Day managed to convince a foundling home to apprentice two pretty young girls to him. He then absconded with the girls to France, where they would be completely dependent on him, and spent the next year educating them and trying to figure out which was his Sophie. At the end of twelve months, he chose one, Sabrina, and sent the other off to a milliner's shop. He then brought Sabrina back to the English countryside, where he set about toughening her up, dripping hot wax on her and ordering her not to scream, and shooting a gun at her skirts and with the command not to flinch. But there were two things he could not conquer: her fears of water and horses. So eventually Sabrina, too, was sent off to boarding school and the search for the perfect wife continued.

What I liked about it: This is another treasure, a well-told, rollicking tale of a rich twit who becomes enamoured of an idea and refuses to let go of it even when it becomes apparent that it isn't working. But I suppose that was a function of Day's odious personality. Did I mention that a part of his eccentricity was that he rejected all social graces, preferring instead to embark on long monologues about his theories, and that he refused to dress fashionably in a wig, but also didn't wash his hair? He wasn't all bad, he was an early abolitionist and supported American independence. And he had influential friends who never renounced him. Still it is satisfactory when Day gets his comeuppance when one of the many women he attempts to woo throws his ideas back on him. How can he reject society, she reasons, if he has never become a proper member of it? So he spends a year learning to dance and fence and dress like a gentleman, only to end up looking more ridiculous than when he started.

What I didn't like about it: This is another flawless book, a fascinating story that's well-told. No complaints from me.

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