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A Seemingly Virtuous Monster

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National Portrait Gallery, London/Manchester Art Gallery
Engraving of Sabrina Bicknell at age seventy-five by Richard James Lane, after a portrait by Stephen Poyntz Denning, 1833; painting of Thomas Day by Joseph Wright, 1770

Wendy Moore has written an account of a crazed attempt by the eighteenth-century poet and philosopher Thomas Day to educate two foundling girls, so that one might become the ideal wife. Her book reads at times like a historical novel. Yet it is underpinned by meticulous research, and raises a host of questions about eighteenth-century attitudes toward women, love, and power, both personal and political. The story of Pygmalion, the sculptor who falls in love with his statue of a beautiful woman and begs the gods to bring her to life, so vividly told by Ovid in the Metamorphoses, exercised an odd fascination in the supposedly rational eighteenth century. Rousseau wrote a poetic drama on the subject in 1762, giving the statue a name, Galatea, and the myth was recast in poetry, opera, and drama.

Later writers, notably George Bernard Shaw in Pygmalion, a work often cited in Moore’s book, overturned the myth’s happy outcome, with the heroine disdaining the love of her creator—as happens, much to one’s relief, in Thomas Day’s story. Seen as human experience, with a real girl rather than a marble form, the legend becomes a tale of hubris, of the overreaching, blasphemous quest to improve on the model given by nature or God, and a moral fable of the enslavement and denial of rights of another creature.

The basic facts remain astonishing. In 1769, with his old schoolfriend John Bicknell, the twenty-five-year-old Day went to the Orphan Hospital in Shrewsbury, where he picked out a twelve-year-old girl of “remarkably promising appearance,” in the words of his friend Richard Lovell Edgeworth. She was allegedly to be apprenticed as a maid to a married friend—Day used Edgeworth’s name without his knowledge. She was a clear, auburn brunette, with dark, expressive eyes and “chestnut tresses,” and Day renamed her Sabrina Sidney, after the river Severn near Shrewsbury and, says Moore, after his childhood hero Sir Philip Sidney (although most accounts see the surname as a tribute to the seventeenth-century republican martyr Algernon Sidney).

To provide a balance, or a fallback, a few weeks later the two men then chose a second girl from the Foundling Hospital in London, an eleven-year-old, “fair, with flaxen locks, and light eyes,” whom Day renamed Lucretia. In a private agreement drawn up by Bicknell, Day promised that within a year he would make his choice, apprentice one girl to a trade and give her £400 on her marriage, and would keep the other—the intended wife—swearing “never to violate her innocence.” If he did not marry her, he would put her with a good family and give her an allowance and £500.

After a short spell in London, Day took the girls to France, on the grounds that as they knew no French the corrupting influences of the place would be weaker. They settled in Avignon for several months, the girls proving their docility by undertaking all the housework, learning to read and write, studying geography, physics, and astronomy by “practical demonstration and experiment,” and undergoing assorted turmoils, like the capsizing of their boat on the swollen Rhone. Day dragged them to land.

Back in England, having found Lucretia “invincibly stupid,” Day apprenticed her to a milliner on Ludgate Hill with a parting gift of £400. She then vanishes from this history. Sabrina he took to Lichfield, near his friend the doctor, poet, and inventor Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles Darwin). But even though she docilely submitted to all tests of her loyalty and endurance, she failed to meet Day’s exacting standards. In 1771, when she was nearly fourteen, she was sent to a smart, conventional boarding school, on condition that she be taught no dancing and allowed no fine clothes. At seventeen, polished and poised, she was apprenticed to a maker of the loose-fitting clothes called mantuas in Lichfield.

Two years later—to her dismay, since she had thought of Day as a guardian, not a prospective husband—he told her of his plans and put her through months of further “training,” before rejecting her, after some peccadillo that is unrecorded. On both occasions, his change of heart had probably less to do with his protégée than his eyeing of a different prospective wife. But to Wendy Moore, this is a feminist triumph: “Sabrina had flouted Day’s rules, she had thrown off her chains and declared her independence…. The perfect woman he had created in his own image was no longer under his control.”

Sabrina’s story became widely known only after Day’s death, when he was feted not only as the coauthor of the first poem on slavery, The Dying Negro (1773), but also as the writer of the three-volume History of Sandford and Merton (1783–1789), a staple of nursery libraries, with its message of friendship between classes and kindness to animals. For all his preaching, the revelations unveiled him as a dominator, an enslaver of women, and quite possibly a libertine as well. Unmentioned in a reticent biography by his friend James Keir, the story was revealed in a highly colored account from the poet Anna Seward, “the Swan of Lichfield,” in her life of Erasmus Darwin in 1804, and later in Richard Edgeworth’s entertainingly honest memoirs, edited by his daughter Maria Edgeworth in 1820.

Wendy Moore treads her way carefully through the prejudices and partisanship of Keir, Seward, and Edgeworth, and the gossip of contemporaries like Fanny Burney. Her account is particularly valuable and touching in the light it sheds on the background of the girls before they entered Day’s orbit, and on Sabrina’s life after she left it. For the first time, thanks to diligent research in the archives of the Foundling Hospital in London, the two girls are identified. As a baby, Sabrina’s mother named her poignantly on the billet when she handed her in as Monimia Butler: Monimia, “the lonely girl” in Greek, was the heroine of Thomas Otway’s 1680 tragedy The Orphan: or, The Unhappy Marriage. On the Foundling’s General Register the clerk gave her a number and a name, “Ann Kingston,” and sent her at the age of two to Shrewsbury. Lucretia, baptized as Ann Grig, stayed in London under her new name of “Dorcas Car.”

The descriptions of the Foundling Hospital and the Shrewsbury orphanage take us into the world of eighteenth-century public benevolence, order, and bureaucracy, a “stark but caring regime.” By contrast, Thomas Day’s scheme drew on very different strands in contemporary thinking, including the culture of sensibility, the influence of Rousseau, and the ethos of inquiry and experiment. In an age of mechanical and scientific experiments, his venture in social and human engineering was a bold venture, a bizarre test in the long debate about the balance of nature and nurture. To keen educationalists it could even masquerade under enlightened notions of benevolence.

Nurture, or lack of it, had a part to play Day’s own life. The child of a wealthy government official who died when he was one, leaving a fortune in trust for his son, Day was brought up by a loving, overprotective mother. At seven, he was devastated when she married again and two years later he was packed off to boarding school at Charterhouse, in central London. He resented his stepfather all his life, and the trauma of his mother’s remarriage instilled an enduring fear of betrayal and female inconstancy.

At school, however, he forged lasting friendships, particularly with John Bicknell. In 1764, while Bicknell was training to become a barrister and Day was heading for Oxford, they formed a partnership they named “Knife and Fork,” producing a satire on vanity and fashion, a foretaste of things to come. Although they shared a zeal for reform of corruption, their friendship was one of opposites: as a student Bicknell was happily carousing in the brothels and bagnios of Covent Garden, while Day was already holding forth at length about the evils of the world and cultivating his morose, unwashed appearance.

Day’s disdain for the polite world stemmed from his classical education and early interest in Stoicism and ideas of “virtue,” a concept, as Moore notes, that gained “totemic status” among writers and thinkers of the time. Virtue was a fluid notion, defined by Samuel Johnson as moral goodness, moral excellence, or valor, and by Voltaire as “beneficence towards the fellow-creature,” but also blending notions of patriotism and fairness with current ideas of politeness and good breeding. Day’s aim was to become a model of the virtuous man, living in retirement from the world: “Like the Stoics of ancient Greece, he would devote himself to a life of simplicity and self-sacrifice, he would scorn all luxury, fashion and pleasure, and he would practice philanthropy and altruism.” But for this he needed a partner, a soul mate who shared his ideals. The recipe he designed, in Anna Seward’s sardonic phrasing, was as follows:

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 in 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.

Although the melancholic Day suffered torments, his behavior before he carried out his plan smacks more of farce. In university holidays, tramping through the West Country and Wales, and hobnobbing with baffled locals, Day simultaneously became enamored of the innocent seductiveness of peasant women and wrote long, aching poems of “hopeless Love” for a mysterious, worldly Laura. She seems to have been the first woman, sensibly, to turn him down, and her preference for a “Hated Rival” provided yet another marker of female fickleness: at one point he simply called her “Bitch.”

The next doomed relationship was with the sister of the ebullient and inventive Irishman Richard Lovell Edgeworth—who in Moore’s rendering turns out not to be a buffoon, as he is often represented, but the warmhearted hero of the story. The two men met in 1766 when Edgeworth and his wife Anna Maria were living close to Day’s parents at Hare Hatch near Reading, and Edgeworth was working on some of his many inventions: “an eleven-spoked ‘perambulator’ that measured distances, a large umbrella to keep haystacks dry, an articulated wagon, a turnip-cutting machine, a track-laying vehicle and a phaeton with each of its four wheels fixed independently.”

In Ireland a year later, Day met Edgeworth’s sister Margaret, who overcame her initial horror at the ill-mannered Day, and agreed tentatively to marry him when he came of age the following year. That was long enough for her to think better of it. Since Day had already decided confidently that she would “scarcely find another Character she can coolly & deliberately think comparable to mine” (quite so), her rejection came as a bolt from the blue, and was not forgiven: he later saw her as “a toad which I would not injure, but cannot help beholding with abhorrence.”

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