Spring sunshine warmed the ancient brick walls of the courtyards and chambers in London's legal quarter. The jet of water that leapt up thirty feet from the fountain in Fountain Court sparkled in the light before splashing noisily into its basin. The seasonal warmth coaxed the blossoms to burst out on the trees and the young law students to burst out of their rooms and saunter in the gardens beside the river. But for one law student the arrival of spring brought gloom, not cheer.
Thomas Day read the letter from his fiancee in Ireland with incredulity. He had said goodbye to Margaret Edgeworth the previous autumn with every expectation they would be married this coming summer. All through the winter, Day had bent dutifully over his law books in earnest anticipation of his approaching wedding. Now Margaret had written to tell him that she wanted to break off the engagement and Day was mortified. Reeling in a mixture of horror and humiliation, he sank into a deep depression.
In truth the news should hardly have been surprising, for the romance had been shaky from the start. Although he was yet only twenty years old, Day had been romantically disappointed on at least one previous occasion and had been understandably wary of forming a new attachment. So when he first met Margaret, the younger sister of his ebullient Irish friend Richard Lovell Edgeworth, a year earlier there had been no immediate attraction. At loose ends after leaving Oxford University the previous year, Day had jumped at the chance to travel to Ireland for the summer with Edgeworth and Edgeworth's young son, Dick. On arrival at the Edgeworth ancestral home amid the flat fields and black bogs of County Longford, Day had greeted Margaret with initial disdain, and she had likewise shown scant interest in her brother's young friend. It seemed, indeed, that the two were opposites in every conceivable way.
At twenty-two, Margaret was considered one of the most attractive, intelligent and sophisticated women in the county. Brought up with a keen awareness of her long ancestry within one of Ireland's powerful Anglo-Irish families, Margaret had been introduced into the drawing rooms of landed society at an early age. Confident and refined, she had a gift for witty conversation and a reputation for impeccable style. One acquaintance would later say that if Margaret appeared on his doorstep dressed in rags and holding a begging bowl he would still have felt impelled to address her as "Madam."
Two years her junior, Thomas Day was not the most obviously eligible of bachelors. Although he was certainly clever, undoubtedly well educated and shortly due to inherit a considerable fortune, Day's personal attractions were decidedly marred by his comical appearance and unconventional manners. 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. Scornful of the contemporary custom for cropped hair covered with a neatly curled wig, Day left his long hair lank and tangled. Eschewing fashionable dress, he wore plain, drab clothes that were invariably crumpled and askew. Even his close friend Edgeworth had to admit: "Mr. Day's exterior was not at that time prepossessing, he seldom combed his raven locks, though he was remarkably fond of washing in the stream." And as his unorthodox approach to personal hygiene might suggest, Day showed no regard for accepted etiquette.
At the dinner table Day's manners were considered so vulgar that they appalled Edgeworth's father. Whether Day merely slurped his soup or went so far as to rest his muddy boots on the table was left unsaid, but certainly Edgeworth senior took "a violent prejudice" against Day "in consequence of something in the manner of his eating and sitting at table, which appeared unsuitable to his rank in life." Over tea in the parlor Day made no attempt at small talk, preferring either to sit sulkily silent or to stand and declaim his dogmatic views loudly and at length.
Excerpted with permission from How to Create the Perfect Wife: Britain's Most Ineligible Bachelor and His Enlightened Quest to Train the Ideal Mate, by Wendy Moore. Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2013.
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