Summary and book reviews of How to Create the Perfect Wife by Wendy Moore

How to Create the Perfect Wife

Britain's Most Ineligible Bachelor and his Enlightened Quest to Train the Ideal Mate

by Wendy Moore

How to Create the Perfect Wife
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  • Published:
    Apr 2013, 368 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Norah Piehl

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About this Book

Book Summary

Stranger than fiction, blending tragedy and farce, How to Create the Perfect Wife is an engrossing tale of the radicalism, and deep contradictions, at the heart of the Enlightenment.

Thomas Day, an 18th-century British writer and radical, knew exactly the sort of woman he wanted to marry. Pure and virginal like an English country maid yet tough and hardy like a Spartan heroine, she would live with him in an isolated cottage, completely subservient to his whims. But after being rejected by a number of spirited young women, Day concluded that the perfect partner he envisioned simply did not exist in frivolous, fashion-obsessed Georgian society. Rather than conceding defeat and giving up his search for the woman of his dreams, however, Day set out to create her.

So begins the extraordinary true story at the heart of How to Create the Perfect Wife, prize-winning historian Wendy Moore's captivating tale of one man's mission to groom his ideal mate. A few days after he turned twenty-one and inherited a large fortune, Day adopted two young orphans from the Foundling Hospital and, guided by the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the principles of the Enlightenment, attempted to teach them to be model wives. After six months he discarded one girl, calling her "invincibly stupid," and focused his efforts on his remaining charge. He subjected her to a number of cruel trials - including dropping hot wax on her arms and firing pistols at her skirts - to test her resolve but the young woman, perhaps unsurprisingly, eventually rebelled against her domestic slavery. Day had hoped eventually to marry her, but his peculiar experiment inevitably backfired, though not before he had taken his theories about marriage, education, and femininity to shocking extremes.

Stranger than fiction, blending tragedy and farce, How to Create the Perfect Wife is an engrossing tale of the radicalism, and deep contradictions, at the heart of the Enlightenment.

Chapter One

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 ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction. That's certainly the case with the story Wendy Moore tells in How to Create a Perfect Wife: Britain's Most Ineligible Bachelor and His Quest to Train the Ideal Mate. Moore combines engaging storytelling with exhaustive and impressive research as she brings to life the misadventures of the eighteenth-century gentleman Thomas Day.   (Reviewed by Norah Piehl).

Full Review Members Only (674 words).

Media Reviews

The Wall Street Journal

With the entire affair now safely in the distant past, readers can make judgments on Day's story for themselves. Ms. Moore has done an especially fine job of tracking Sabrina in archives and across England, even locating her previously unrecognized grave. How to Create the Perfect Wife is to be relished by those who enjoy slices of 18th-century life.

Slate

The Pygmalion-gone-wrong story of a man who adopted two orphans in hopes of making one his wife is bizarre, true, and thoroughly compelling, touching on the folly of uncritically embracing extreme parenting methods, the futility of trying to force someone to be who you want, and the danger of philosophy when wielded by young men who don’t understand it.

The New Republic

[An] excellent new book... Its tone is dry and amused, and the author's approach to her subject is ironi ...The picture of Day is so expertly drawn and so withering without being heavy-handed, that it manages to count as a form of moral condemnation.

Salon

[A] transfixing new book…. How to Create the Perfect Wife, as delectable as any good novel, is also the best remedy for wrongs done long ago. It takes a girl who was plucked from obscurity to become an experiment, a paragon, a symbol and a legend, and it has made her a person once more.

Boston Globe

[An] extraordinarily strange and entertaining book…. Moore’s acerbic dissection of Day’s hypocrisy – and the surprising unfolding of the story – make this a lively, compelling read.

The Economist

A darkly amusing tale about the struggle to create the perfect wife…. This story is told with gusto.

Mail on Sunday (UK)

In this enthralling, brilliantly researched book, Wendy Moore has uncovered a story so weird that you have to keep reminding yourself that it actually happened…. Moore has found an extraordinary story and tells it very well indeed. Far from writing a ‘horrible history’ shocker, she does a good job of explaining why Day truly thought he was undertaking an experiment for the good of humanity.

Booklist

Day is ludicrous, insufferable, arrogant – and utterly engrossing…. The narrative pulses forward briskly, moving between Day’s story and those of the orphan girls.... An unusual and unusually fascinating story.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Moore's funny, psychologically rich narrative feels as if Jane Austen had reworked Shaw's Pygmalion into a Gothic-inflected comedy of manners, and illuminates the era's confusions about nature and nurture, sentiment and rationalism, love and power. The result is both a scintillating read and compelling social history.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. A darkly enlightening tale - thoroughly researched, gracefully written - about Enlightenment thought, male arrogance and the magic of successful matrimony.

Library Journal

Starred Review. This is a seductive book. Readers will be captivated as the tale unfolds, marveling at the many layers of meaning and historical significance that London journalist Moore has woven together through painstaking archival research.

The Times (UK)

With gusto and glee Wendy Moore takes on the paradoxes of ‘the Age of Reason’ and the tyranny of public probity and private morality.

The Daily Express (UK)

Moore is under no illusions about the desirability of her hero and tells his story with a wry wit that makes him engaging even as his audacity, arrogance and egotism send your jaw hurtling to the floor.

The Guardian (UK)

In How to Create the Perfect Wife, [Moore] investigates education, liberty and the role of women. It is pleasing to see a writer bringing together painstaking research with gripping storytelling. I can't wait for her next book.

Financial Times

Compelling and meticulously researched.... [Moore] evokes a period of contradictions, in which an abolitionist (as Day was) could '[purchase] two girls ... as he might buy shoe buckles.'

Sunday Times (UK)

What is so intriguing about this rollicking and well-researched book is just how confoundingly, detestably hypocritical [Moore’s] central character is…. This is a sordid tale, splendidly told…. [An] enthralling history.

Author Blurb Amanda Foreman, author of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and A World on Fire
Only Wendy Moore has the genius to find and bring to glorious life the hidden histories, the personal follies, and very human desires of our 18th-century ancestors. How to Create the Perfect Wife is a perfect read.

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Beyond the Book

The Influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Emile on Thomas Day

Jean-Jacques RousseauWendy Moore illustrates the various cultural influences that led to Thomas Day's peculiar experiment. Among these are the Pygmalion myth (later popularized in George Bernard Shaw's play by that name, as well as the musical, My Fair Lady, based on Shaw's play) and, perhaps most influentially, Jean-Jacques Rousseau's book, Emile, or On Education. First published in 1762, the educational treatise uses novelistic conventions (such as character and plot) to illustrate Rousseau's theories on the best way for the individual to retain innate goodness while still participating as a functioning member of society. It's divided into five parts, beginning with very young childhood and eventually exploring the ideal route for the individual to choose a ...

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