Source of book: Borrowed from the library
It seems like every so often, I end up reading a group of books that all connect somehow. I’m not sure how much is coincidence, serendipity, or some subconscious part of me that picks stuff. In this case, this book has a direct connection to another book - Orley Farm by Anthony Trollope - and a musical - My Fair Lady - which I have reviewed recently. I experienced all three simultaneously to a degree, so the connections were obvious.
All of these center around the idea of creating the perfect woman. In other words, the Pygmalion and Galatea myth.
The Enlightenment was a pretty heady time. New discoveries, new ideas, grand theories, and scientific detail. A combination of a technical revolution and skepticism of authoritarian dogma turned the world on its head. As with every era, there was good and bad. Particularly pernicious was the use of science to fuel racism and eugenics. And the application of Enlightenment reasoning to religion gave us theonomic presuppositional fundamentalism. But much of what we take for granted in our own time - representative government, religious freedom, freedom of speech, science and technology, human rights, and separation of church and state - ALL derive from the Enlightenment.
In retrospect, one of the most influential figures turned out to be Jean-Jacque Rousseau. While many of his ideas seem a bit far out even today, even those who (like the fundies in the homeschool movement) claim to loathe Rousseau have actually adopted many of his assumptions. Our modern idea of education as the nurture of children rather than the beating of wickedness out of them comes from Rousseau. Self-directed learning. Hands on learning rather than rote memorization. Experience of nature as education. All Rousseau. One might even claim that the idea that children are a blank slate is an idea he popularized. Few truly attempt a fully “unschooled” learning plan as laid out in Emile, but the ideas permeate our educational institutions in more modest doses.
But what if one actually tried to follow Rousseau exactly? Well, a few did indeed try back in the 1700s.
And what of Pygmalion and Galatea? The story has been around since ancient Greece, and was retold countless times over the intervening thousands of years. Pygmalion creates a statue of the world’s most beautiful woman. He falls in love with the statue...and then it comes to life. The living woman, Galatea, though, turns out to be problematic. She has a mind of her own, and isn’t interested in dedicating her life to making Pygmalion’s dreams come true.
Sir Thomas Day lived during this era. Born into a reasonably big fortune, he nevertheless grew up uncultured and unusual. He dressed like a slob, didn’t powder his hair, and proclaimed radical and astounding ideas at exhausting length. He ran with an interesting group of intellectuals which included Erasmus Darwin, Josiah Wedgwood, Robert Lowell Edgeworth, and Anna Seward. They talked of philosophy and science and invention and discovery. And also about education.
Edgeworth actually tried to raise his oldest son according to the Rousseau method - it didn’t turn out well. But Day took it one step further. He decided that Rousseau’s method might work for a girl as well. (That wasn’t the way Rousseau saw it - he believed in educating women to be docile and servile - and Mary Wollstonecraft took him to task for it.) Day’s motives weren’t exactly purely scientific either. After a series of rejections, he decided he would try to raise and educate a perfect wife for himself.
This was no easy task. Day had a rather specific set of requirements. His ideal woman would have to be pure and virginal, of course. She would need to be highly intelligent and educated. But she would also need to be willing to live in a spartan cottage in the middle of nowhere with him. And to be subservient to him in every way. Day concluded that such a woman didn’t exist in Georgian society, so he would have to create her.
To that end, he adopted two adolescent girls from a local orphanage, with the intention of choosing one to train and create to be his future wife.
Day quickly discarded one of the girls, Lucretia, as too ornery - and apprenticed her to learn a trade. (This actually worked out for her - she married reasonably well, and when she last appears in any traceable record, appeared to have made a good life.) The other, he would go on to train using some bizarre and often abusive (as we would understand it) methods. He got her to withstand pain by dripping hot wax on her arms, and shot guns off near her to teach her to resist becoming startled, to name just two. Eventually, he gave up on the project and sent her to a series of finishing academies and apprenticeships - exactly the opposite of his original plan. But even so, she never really developed into his ideal mate. She married, was quickly widowed with two infants, but was looked after by Charles Burney, one of Day’s friends. Like the other, Sabrina (as she was renamed by Day) ended up living a long and good life, accumulating a modest fortune despite her humble station.
The story is the heart of this book, which follows Day and Sabrina and a few of the other characters over the course of nearly a century. The tale is both fascinating and horrifying. To a degree, that is a good way to describe Day, who was a complex man who defies easy categorization.
On the one hand, he was a noble guy: he opposed slavery (writing “The Dying Negro,” a poem about an escaped and recaptured slave), was generous to the poor - he died having given away much of his fortune, and sought positive reform in many areas of society. On the other hand, he was deeply sexist, and didn’t seem to be willing to extend human rights and dignity to women. In this, he was of his time, to be sure. But he was also pretty cruel and callous to Sabrina and Lucretia. He could be a great friend - and a total boor. Perhaps we can say that he, like most of us, was a mix of good and bad - and that the bad hasn’t aged well as the world has changed.
There is some evidence that he may have been on the autism spectrum, based on his difficulties in picking up on social cues and the feelings of others. One example of this is his beliefs about love. He didn’t believe romantic love was real. There are a number of quotes to that effect in his letters and diaries, but this one will suffice:
“Love I am firmly convinc’d is the Effect of Prejudice & Imagination; a rational Mind is incapable of it, at least in any great Degree.”
His tendency to say things like this while courting may have been a factor in his rejection by a number of women. But it might also have been his expectations. When courting Honoria Sneyd, he drew up a long and detailed summary of his expectations and requirements in a wife, along with his play to live off the grid.
Honoria rejected Day, with a polite but badass explanation. She said she “would not admit the unqualified control of a husband over all her actions” and she did not feel that “seclusion from society was indispensably necessary to preserve female virtue, or to secure domestic happiness.” Finally, she refused to believe that marital happiness could ever exist without “terms of reasonable equality.” I thoroughly agree with all of the above.
It is interesting that Day finally did find a woman who would marry him. Esther Milnes saw something in him, and did her best to be the subservient wife he expected. During the decade of their marriage (which produced no children), they had a tempestuous relationship - nobody could possibly live up to Day’s standards - but after he died, she was heartbroken, and died soon thereafter.
Another interesting fact about the marriage was this: Esther came with a fortune of her own. At the time, when a woman married, her property went straight to her husband. She essentially ceased to exist as a separate person. Day, whatever his personal beliefs about women may have been, did not agree with this idea. He proposed a prenup that allowed Esther to retain control and possession of her property. This was both unusual, and generous on his part, given the law at the time.
As I noted, this book is about a lot more than just the story of Day and Sabrina. Wendy Moore extensively researched the various people in Day’s orbit - she even tracked down Lucretia and Sabrina’s history at the orphanage - including their original names. The back stories on many of the characters make it into the story as well. Moore presents an entire world, not just a narrow view of one particular incident.
One of the interesting things about reading this book was hearing mention of the only famous people in my ancestry. I have German Mennonites on both sides of my family, while my last name comes from Sweden. Those branches are all poor but respectable farmers who immigrated to the US in the 1880s. But, on the other branch, I am related to Josiah Wedgwood, the famous potter who appears in this story. My mom actually got a few hundred bucks as an inheritance when some later scion of the Wedgwood family died without issue. Wedgwood was also related to the Darwins, and there was later intermarriage. Thus, I can claim to be a relation (although not a direct descendent) of both Erasmus and Charles Darwin.
Another thing that stood out was Rousseau’s response when he found out that people were taking Emile literally as an instruction book. He never intended it to be a practical manual for child rearing. “I cannot believe that you took the book which bears this name for a real treatise on education. You are quite right to say it is impossible to create an Emile.” I can’t help but think that far too many works - particularly the bible - have been misunderstood and misused in the same way - with similarly harmful results.
I have to mention one incident from Day’s college days. Apparently, Voltaire’s Dictionnaire Philosphique was one book that Day read - and defended. “I cannot say I think it calculated to do so much Harm, as to deserve a public Execution.” He overheard a fellow student applauding the rumor that it would be banned. Day challenged him, and discovered that the student hadn’t even read the book. Which is pretty much how would-be censors tend to be, isn’t it?
Perhaps the most troubling part of the book, though, deals with the orphanage. The Foundling Hospital was founded by Thomas Coram, a retired sea captain who was appalled at the poverty he found in 18th Century London. The worst was the sight of dozens of abandoned babies, dead and alive, on rubbish heaps beside the road. Coram didn’t have much of his own money, but tirelessly raised both public funds and private charity. The idea was that orphans and unwanted babies could be dropped off, no questions asked.
The first night it was open, thirty babies were accepted, with more turned away. In a four year period, nearly fifteen thousand were processed. The cost, as you might expect, was pretty substantial, even though the children were apprenticed out at ages ten through twelve.
Moore briefly explores the factors at work. The Georgian era - the whole century actually - was dubbed “the century of illegitimacy,” but this isn’t quite accurate. It wasn’t that morals somehow went missing. Rather, economic and political conditions caused an upsurge. In common practice - even among the Puritans - couples would become intimate, marrying formally if and when a child was conceived. Many of these intended marriages, however, stopped taking place. Contributing factors were military conscription (dad gets drafted, so no marriage), rising cost of living, a change in the law making weddings more expensive, and rising adult mortality. It wasn’t just illegitimacy, though. Plenty of families simply couldn’t support another child. A new baby literally meant someone starved.
The Religious Right likes to pretend that somehow, before Roe v. Wade that everything was nice and rosy, and it was just the evil liberals that created a holocaust. Historically, that wasn’t even close to true. Leaving aside the fact that abortion has existed as long as recorded history, unwanted or unaffordable children have always perished - and infanticide was shockingly common throughout the Georgian and Victorian eras. On a related note, the Religious Right is delusional if it thinks that abortion will magically go away once criminalized. Doubly so since they are hostile toward contraception and efforts to alleviate poverty. What is more likely is that we will get some combination of increased mass incarceration - this time of low income and minority women - and widespread abandonment of babies. (And also, like other countries which have criminalized abortion, high abortion rates - higher than those countries in which it is legal…)
Also disturbing about this story was the ease with which Day (and Edgeworth, who as a married man was the official guardian of the girls) was able to essentially purchase a couple of children. He concealed his intent - lied - to get them, and then changed their names to cover his tracks. As the author puts it:
“At a time when women were commodities, to be exchanged in marriage for vast fortunes and land or bought in a dark alley for sixpence, Day had purchased two girls as easily as he might buy two shoe buckles.”
This was all fairly well known to many in Day’s acquaintance. And yet, because he was male, wealthy, and eccentric, people just looked the other way.
The idea of the expendability of women is also seen in the number of women in this story who give birth to a child a year (or more!) for a decade, then expire of exhaustion in their early 30s. It’s not an era I would prefer to return to, and I am a man. I cannot imagine many women would be so eager to go back to those days - even as an aristocrat - if they really understood what it was like.
After Day’s death, his story was told. Chief among those responsible was Maria Edgeworth, Richard’s eldest daughter. A novelist famous in her time, she grew up around Sabrina, and incorporated the story into one of her bestselling novels. While she didn’t specifically reveal identities, and changed a few things, people knew who she was talking about. For Sabrina, the revelation of her history was a bit embarrassing. After all, she was a respectable woman by then, and her likely illegitimacy did lower her social standing. But worse was Sabrina’s elder son John, who had no idea of his mother’s history, and was furious at Maria for exposing it.
The story was also told in various forms in other books, and entered into the popular consciousness. A century after Sabrina’s adoption, Anthony Trollope used it in Orley Farm, which I recently read. A young man more or less adopts a young ward with the understanding that he would marry her eventually. Unique to this story is that there is a father - a drunken, belligerent father.
Not too long after that, Trollope’s version was mined by George Bernard Shaw, who retained the problematic father for his play Pygmalion, which eventually became the musical My Fair Lady. And thus, the three are connected. Two of them imaginative stories - and the other a shockingly true event.
In all of them, as in the original myth, it turns out that you really can’t create your perfect wife. Humans have a way of being uncooperative in matters of the heart. Even Day, the quintessential utopian thinker, failed at his task, only to find that his soulmate was someone he wasn’t expecting. As Trollope puts it, “On the whole I think that the ordinary plan is the better, and even the safer.”
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