2013, 259 p. & notes
The original Pygmalion of Greek mythology was a sculptor who, disgusted by the impurity of the daughters of Propoetus, fell in love with the beautiful sculpture of a woman that he had carved out of ivory. Before the altar of Venus, he secretly wished that he could marry a woman who would be the living likeness of his sculpture, only to find that his wish was granted. A man creating his ideal woman is a story that was repeated in Shaw’s Pygmalion, in My Fair Lady and Pretty Woman– and so too, in this book. But there’s nothing romantic, feel-good or funny about this book at all.
In 1769 twenty-year old Thomas Day was wealthy, intense, disheveled and a young man of questionable personal hygiene. He did not take his first rebuttal in love at all well. Spurned by the sister of his friend Richard Edgeworth and deeply influenced by Rousseau’s book Emile, he and Richard contrived to adopt one, then two, 12 year old girls from the Foundling Hospital in order for Thomas to mould them into a woman who would make a perfect wife. Although ostensibly adopted by the safely married Richard Edgeworth, the two girls became Thomas’ possessions as he changed their names, took them away and followed the prescriptions in Emile. When the first girl proved unsuitable, she was bundled off to be apprenticed and he turned his attention to the second, ‘Sabrina’. We certainly would see his treatment of her as abuse today: isolation, exposure to the cold and wet, the dropping of hot wax onto bare skin and the expectation of unquestioning and absolute obedience. But in Georgian Britain? His friends, members of the nonconformist and free-thinking Lunar Society of Birmingham (James Watt, Erasmus Darwin, Matthew Boulton, Josiah Wedgwood etc. ) were aware of his ‘experiment’ and his odd obsession, and while they thought it strange, did not intervene.
But even the young orphans refused to be part of a such a perverse undertaking, and he lost Sabrina. He immediately turned his attention to other women in his circle, still striving for the perfect wife who would live with him in isolation and penury by choice, completely subservient to his wishes. The chapters in the book are arranged by the women he turned to, one after the other and some even more than once, in his quest. At last he found a woman who loved him deeply and complied with his wishes, even though she was not at all the type of woman he had tried to create.
The book focuses on Thomas Day and Sabrina, one of the orphan girls. She survived him, but was almost brought undone by the exposure of her story and her illegitimacy by the writings of people in Thomas Day’s literary circle. Thomas Day himself is a paradox: a strange, driven, single-minded man who was at the same time the author of one of the most popular children’s book series (The History of Sandford and Merton), the author of a highly influential anti-slavery tract The Dying Negro, and a strong supporter of American Independence.
The author, Wendy Moore, obviously knows a good story when she sees one. She wrote the best-selling Wedlock (see my review here) , which was a retelling of the story of Andrew Robinson Stoney and Mary Eleanor Bowes, the inspiration for Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon . Both that book and this one are non-fiction, well researched and well-documented, drawing on the extensive writings of these educated, literate characters of Georgian England.
Moore writes a rattling good yarn, which moves quickly and lightly. It is told in a rather conversational style that is rather sweeping as far as the big picture is concerned, but the extensive footnotes at the end reveal how source-based the material is when she is dealing with Thomas Day himself. It’s a good, if unsettling, read.