This Guy Adopted a 12-Year-Old and Tried to Mold Her Into the Perfect Wife. Shockingly, It Did Not Go…

Reading between the lines.
April 5 2013 10:30 AM

Chauvinist Pygmalion

In 18th century England, Thomas Day adopted a little girl and tried to mold her into the perfect wife.

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And why didn’t any of his friends try to stop him? They knew that he was living with (though there’s no evidence he actually slept with) a pretty, malleable girl. Many in his circle were educated, progressive; some of the women, like writer Anna Seward, became friends with his charge, even though their letters suggest they were fully aware of the hot wax and other maltreatment Sabrina was subjected to. She existed in an unprotected social limbo—“a curious hybrid of privileged daughter and unpaid skivvy,” as Moore puts it—for a year before they finally pressured him to send her off to boarding school. But even then, Sabrina remained under Day’s control emotionally and financially, with Day considering her as a potential spouse for several more years.

Author Wendy Moore
Author Wendy Moore

Courtesy of Colin Crisford

Moore’s subject is appalling enough that it somehow feels wrong to find much of the material laughable—but nevertheless, it is. Day may have been some sort of genius, but his wildly off-mark interpretation of Rousseau should be included as a cautionary tale in all introductory philosophy classes. (See also: Jared Loughner and the troubled young men who cling to Nietzsche.) Doubling down on misinterpretation is a path to disaster—and certainly dour Day’s pursuit seems to have brought him little happiness.

But it’s also a cautionary tale to new parents who are desperate for a guiding philosophy. After all, if you ignore the (utterly, utterly creepy) part about Day wanting to make Sabrina his wife, his story is at its heart one of a man trying to keep one eye on a parenting guide and the other on his kid. In fact, maybe we should blame Rousseau for the endless, excruciating parent-blogger battles over whether we should let kids be kids, or instill discipline, or breast-feed to age 5. Moore writes that Emile “kickstarted a debate between huggers and hard-liners, between carrot and stick, which would ricochet down the centuries" and "would change not just educational practice but basic ideas about childhood fundamentally and forever.” From Emile, then, we can trace those who would hew rigidly to attachment, minimalist, or authoritarian parenting—and also those who would drive themselves crazy trying to find a style that’s just right. Day was far too busy taking Rousseau literally to pay attention to his ward, who was actually quite fond of him until she learned about the true nature of his experiment.

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Given that Day tried to mold not just Sabrina, but also a friend’s son and every woman he ever saw romantically, perhaps the most karmically delicious part of How to Create the Perfect Wife is when Day himself tries to become someone he is not. Under the sway of a fashionable woman, he heads to France for his own dramatic makeover, adopting his much-loathed frippery and remaking his appalling manners. But when he returns to claim his lady love, everyone is aghast: He is completely unconvincing. He quickly discards his new look and returns to the simple life he idealized so joylessly. But in the end, his grander, more awful experiment made him look more a fool than those whose shallowness he so despised.

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