A real life Pygmalion – Thomas Day

Pygmalion saw women waste their lives

in wretched shame, and critical of faults

which nature had so deeply planted through

their female hearts, he lived in preference,

for many years unmarried.–But while he

was single, with consummate skill, he carved

a statue out of snow-white ivory,

and gave to it exquisite beauty, which

no woman of the world has ever equalled:

she was so beautiful, he fell in love

with his creationOvid’s Metamorphoses: Pygmalion

NPG 2490; Thomas Day by Joseph Wright 

The story of Pygmalion, whose disgust at the shameful lives of the women of his era, leads him to create Galatea, a beautiful ivory statue more perfect than any living woman. Indeed, he actually falls in love with the statue and goes to the temple of the goddess Venus to pray for a lover like his statue. Venus is touched by his love and brings Galatea to life. And they all lived happily ever after. But it is a rather perverse story. It is the idea of the man creating the woman of his desires to meet his needs. It reminds me of those avatars that I wrote about a few weeks ago.

This is not just the stuff of literature. One such case is that of Thomas Day, a British children’s author and abolitionist, whose portrait hangs at the National Portrait Gallery in London. I have been there many times, but I have to admit I had not noticed this one. I had no idea of the extraordinary life of Day. I learned about Day when I recently finished reading Wendy Moore’s How to Create the Perfect Wife – Britain’s Most Ineligible Bachelor and His Enlightened Quest to Train the Ideal Mate, a book which came out in 2013.

Thomas Day was born on June 22 1748. He was the only child of Thomas and Jane Day. His father died when Day was just a year old, leaving him fatherless but wealthy, a fortune he would inherit when he became 21. His education included Charterhouse School and Corpus Christi College, Oxford. He became a member of the Lunar Society, a club of prominent members of the Midlands Enlightenment, whose members included Josiah Wedgwood, Joseph Priestley, Erasmus Darwin and James Watt. It got its name because the members would meet during the full moon.  In the absence of street lighting, the full moon made the journey home easier and safer

It was 1769 and the 21-year-old Day, a man with a considerable was determined to find a wife. He was baffled that women just did not seem attracted to him. He was tall and dark, and was not unattractive. However, his face was marked by smallpox. He had no time for Georgian fashions. Indeed, he was a bit of a scruff, who didn’t wash his hair very often. But his biggest drawback was surely his personality He was uncomfortable with small talk, preferring to pontificate. Having been jilted a couple of times Day had a decidedly misogynistic view of women. He was looking for a woman untainted by society.  According to one of his friends, his demands were modest:

He resolved, if possible, that his wife should have a taste for literature and science, for moral and patriotic philosophy. So might she be his companion in that retirement, to which he had destined himself; and assist him forming the minds of his children to stubborn virtue and high exertion. He resolved also, that she should be simple as a mountain girl, in her dress, her diet and her manners, fearless and intrepid as the Spartan wives and Roman heroines.”

If he could not find such a creature ready made, he would have to create the wife he wanted, all by himself. Inspired by a suggestion in Rousseau’s Sophie. Where could he find the raw material from which to mould his perfect wife? The place he chose was a foundling hospital. First, he went to one in Shrewsbury. He went there with a friend, John Bicknell, who was a lawyer. They would not have been allowed to pick up a young orphan for a single man, so they claimed to be looking for an apprentice maid for a friend of theirs, Richard Lovell Edgeworth, who knew nothing of their ruse. The “winner” was Ann Kingston, a 12.year-ol girl with chestnut hair, who he renamed Sabrina Sidney. Not content with one orphan, Day and Bicknell repeated the operation, this time in London with Dorcas Car a blonde 11-year old orphan with blue eyes. Maintaining the Roman heroine theme he named her Lucretia. All of this is rather shocking. Protected by his wealth, Day was able to purchase two vulnerable girls, in the words of Moore, “as he might buy two shoe buckles“. No system of follow-up checks existed. From the moment they left the foundling hospitals, these two children, ages 12 and 11, became Day’s property, to do with as he pleased. His friends, rather shockingly, raised no objections to the project. Significantly,his mother and stepfather remained in the dark. Of course neither of the girls was told about the arrangement.

Day took them to Paris and later Avignon. As well as helping him cover his tracks, it was an excellent way of isolating the girls. Neither of them spoke French so Day would be their only teacher, their only contact with the world. The subtitle of Moore’s book mentions the enlightened quest to train the ideal mate. This is where the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau come in. I am not a fan of Mr. Rousseau. His treatment of his own family was despicable. And more importantly many of his ideas about society were wrong-headed. The idea that we were all noble creatures until we were corrupted by civilisation is not one I subscribe to. Day, though, was a true believer. He declared in 1769 that the two tomes he would save, if all the world’s books were to be destroyed, would be the Bible and Rousseau’s Emile. The idea was for a progressive education. Children should not be forced to study. Rather they should discover things for themselves. Day was converted by his friend to Rousseau by his friend Edgeworth, who had educated his son Dick a la Rousseau.

This would be an ideal method for creating the perfect wife. But things didn’t go very well. He decided that Lucretia was too stupid and stubborn to train and had her apprenticed to a milliner on Ludgate Hill in London.  Soon, she married a draper and received her dowry, as stipulated in the contract that had been drawn up by John Bicknell.

Now only Sabrina was standing. The second phase of the Rousseau method was now about to begin. This involved making her stronger and better able to suffer. However, it sounds more Marquis de Sade. She had sealing wax poured on her arms and pins stuck into her. She had to learn not to flinch when pistols were fired near her and she was thrown into a lake, even though she couldn’t swim. This was all too much for Sabrina, who just couldn’t get with the programme. In early 1771 he sent her off to boarding school in Sutton Coldfield. He had failed to train her successfully. This was of course nothing to do with the training methods; He just hadn’t had the right quality raw material to work with.

He went back to more conventional methods for looking for a mate. The results were equally unsuccessful. He was jilted another two times. He even tried to change for one of these women by becoming the perfect Georgian gentleman, with disastrous results. He tried one more time with Sabrina, but it was not to be. In the end he found someone who could put up with his eccentricities – Esther Milnes, a rich heiress. They were married on August 7, 1778. They lived a very ascetic lifestyle and Esther was never allowed to contact her family. He would constantly criticise her, but she was in love with him. They worked together on a philanthropic project to improve the conditions of the working classes around them.

Sabrina married John Bicknell. Only then did she learn the full extent of the experiment. She demanded an explanation from Day. His reply was typical of the man:

“… whether those intentions were wild, chimerical, & extravagant … that object relates to myself alone & you are the last person in the world to whom I owe any apologies“. Bicknell died a few years later leaving her with xxx children to bring up. Luckily she soon found a job as a housekeeper at private boys’ school. She died at the age of 86.

Day would go on to write a book at the time would be a children’s children’s classic Sandford and Merton, which tells how a lonely, spoilt, rich boy is befriended by a farmer’s son, and becomes a hero by saving a poor family from the bailiffs. Day never lived to enjoy his fame. In 1789, the year of the French Revolution, he was thrown from a horse. Day, an animal lover, had refused to break in the young colt.

This is the contradiction of this man. Here was a man who loathed cruelty to animals, campaigned against slavery, supported American independence and was a follower of progressive thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau. A member of the Lunar Society, he was a respected member of Georgian society. Therein lies the reality. He was a product of the class and gender relations of that society. In a previous post I mentioned The Expanding Circle, how we have gradually extended sympathy to more and more groups, including animals. Day had extended his circle of sympathy to working people, slaves and animals but not to females. Women, especially if they were poor orphans were just property. Another man who lived at this time, Thomas Jefferson wrote something called The United States Declaration of Independence in which he stated: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” He was also a slave-owner. Such is the human ability to hold mutually contradictory ideas. Thomas Day certainly is an example of this.

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