February 22, 2013 7:23 pm

In brief

How to Create the Perfect Wife, by Wendy Moore, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, RRP£18.99, 336 pages

 

Thomas Day – clever, with a good figure and a weighty inheritance – could have been a hit in Georgian London. But obstinate and awkward, with questionable grooming habits, the young bachelor was unlucky in love. It didn’t help that he wanted a subservient, sylphlike wife to join him on country walks.

His solution, as we learn in Wendy Moore’s compelling and meticulously researched book, was to select two orphaned girls and, like Pygmalion in a powdered wig, mould them into his ideal. He would then wed the more suitable one. Inspired by a shaky reading of Rousseau’s Emile, his methods were offbeat at best and viciously sadistic at worst. Moore can’t quite decide whether the man was a monster or a misguided eccentric. Rather, she evokes a period of contradictions, in which an abolitionist (as Day was) could “[purchase] two girls ... as he might buy shoe buckles”.

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