On June 22, 1769, Thomas Day turned 21. Long-suffering in his quest to find a perfect woman, he now found himself a free man in possession of substantial income, and elected to find an unspoiled specimen and train her to his liking. Since Day’s habits included bathing in ice water, eschewing fashion and frippery and manifesting “virtue” through suffering, his struggles to find a mate the old-fashioned way are unsurprising. What does come as a shock is his decision to grease the palms in charge of a foundling hospital in order to abduct two orphans, whom he then trained in an unspoken competition to see which he would select for a bride.

How to Create the Perfect Wife follows this quest, which is by turns comic and tragic. Day sought to follow the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but his desires were all in conflict with one another: He wanted a woman who was strong and healthy, yet demure and virginal; one who was his intellectual equal, yet willing to live in seclusion with him and defer to his authority in all things. Even by the Enlightenment’s standards, his actions were wildly controversial, and of the two girls he trained, it’s clear that Lucretia, who lost a contest she didn’t know she was involved in, came out the winner overall.

Author and historian Wendy Moore writes with a novelist’s flair and fluidity. She is tough but fair to Day; though his ideas about women were clearly dangerous, he was a fine writer, a loyal if blustery friend and an early supporter of the abolition of slavery. He did ultimately marry a woman to whom he appeared well-suited. Nevertheless, he and his foundlings never escaped being objects of “tea table tittle-tattle” for the remainder of their days, and the scandal was harmful to all concerned. Day’s story echoes the original Pygmalion myth, which was not a love story but a cautionary tale about the limits of omnipotence.

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