A Seemingly Virtuous Monster

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…

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