Although leaders of progressive education from the French Revolution to the free school movement of the 1960s have taken Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile as their guide—a treatise that imagines the kind of education necessary to liberate from the chains of corrupt society the “natural man” described in hisThe Second Discourse—perhaps no reader has been as credulous as 18th-century British abolitionist and children’s book author Thomas Day. He took such a literal view of the Emile that he embarked on a twisted plan to create his own Sophie, the ideal wife Rousseau imagines for Emile once he’s grown.
Wendy Moore, a talented journalist and historian, gives a gripping account of Day’s doomed dalliance with Rousseau in her book How to Create the Perfect Wife: Britain’s Most Ineligible Bachelor and his Enlightened Quest to Train the Ideal Mate. Moore’s focus is on the inherent misogyny of Georgian England that would allow for such an experiment to take place. More interesting, in certain respects, is the way in which Moore’s story of Day’s Frankenstein experiment raises disturbing questions about Rousseau’s philosophy, and how tyrants and misery are born in the service of progressive ideals.
Born an only child to a wealthy family, by age two Thomas Day was the sole heir of a vast fortune when his father died. When his mother remarried a few years later, he was sent to one of London’s most elite boarding schools, Charterhouse, where the customs included school floggings; meals of gruel; drafty; crowded dorm rooms; and sleep deprivation. The austere atmosphere was meant to inculcate in its young, privileged charges a hardiness of body and spirit. Day took to this Spartan lifestyle and would continue it at Oxford (despite its lax environment), where he immersed himself in his studies of philosophy and, as one peer described him, “always talked like a book.” Bookish, indifferent to fashion and manners, and morally uptight, with stooped shoulders, unruly hair, and a face pockmarked with scars from a small pox episode, he became a social misfit.
At the age of 18 and home with his mother for the holidays, Day formed a friendship with the inventor Richard Lovell Edgeworth. Edgeworth introduced him to the Lunar Society, a group of forward-thinking intellectuals, many of whom were active in the abolitionist movement, that included the two grandfathers of Charles Darwin, as well as Doctor William Small, a tutor to Thomas Jefferson, and the inventor and industrialist James Watt, among other eminent figures. Edgeworth also introduced Day to the works of Rousseau. Day found himself drawn to the Emile and fancied himself the living embodiment of the titular pupil with his preference for the simple bucolic life, his desire to live at one with nature, and his scorn of fashion, vanity, and society. “It is indeed an extraordinary work—the more I read, the more I admire. Every page is big with important truth…. ‘Excellent Rousseau!’ first of humankind!!”
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Under Rousseau’s influence, day searched for an eligible woman who could live naturally in society without being corrupted by the trappings of wealth and luxury—who could live at one with him, so to speak—but all of the women whom he courted recoiled from such a plan. Around the same time, his friend Edgeworth decided to use Rousseau’s teachings in theEmile to raise and educate his 3-year-old son, Dick. Inspired by his friend’s real-life application of Rousseau’s ideas, and out of luck with the several women he had pursued, Day decided if he could not find a perfect wife, he would, like Pygmalion, create his own.
Moore’s description of this twisted experiment in human hubris is gripping. Day, with the help of his friend, the lawyer, John Bicknell, went to the Shrewsbury Foundling’s Hospital and adopted two girls, one 11 and the other 12, whom he re-named “Sabrina” and “Lucretia.” Neither the girls nor the hospital had any knowledge of Day’s scheme when they were released into his care. Sabrina took to her studies more eagerly and eventually emerged as Day’s favorite. She would be subjected to an education meant to inculcate the Rousseauean virtues. She was not to have dancing lessons, but instead would study geography, physics, and astronomy through practical observations and experiments. To encourage a scorn of luxury, she dressed in simple clothes. (Day once sent a box with a fancy dress in it to Sabrina, much to her delight, only to order her to burn it in the fire). In an effort to build hardiness of body and character, Day dropped melted sealing wax on her arms, fired pistol shots at her petticoat, and subjected her to cold-water submersions in a lake. Not surprisingly, Sabrina did not bear these tests well. The harrowing experiments continued with Sabrina still in the dark about Day’s plans, regarding him solely as a guardian. When he revealed his intention to take her as his wife, Sabrina was shocked. A rift occurred between the two of them—Moore alludes to Sabrina dressing in a way that displeased Day—and Day called off their union.
In the end, despite being subjected to such tortures, both Lucretia and Sabrina went onto have (as best as we can tell) happy and respectable marriages. Even Day managed to find a wife who shared his love of the rustic, simple life and his distaste for bourgeois society, the heiress Esther Milne. But like Rousseau’s unfinished sequel, Emile et Sophie, the marriage was not a happy one, especially for Esther. Day died at the age of 41 after getting kicked in the head by a horse he was seeking to tame by using alternative methods.
His friend Richard Edgeworth also failed in his experiment to raise a young Emile in his son Dick. He would acknowledge, according to Moore, “that his efforts to apply Rousseau’s theories to Dick had proven disastrous.” Young Dick was a “truculent” young boy, who wildly ran through the house barefoot, uninterested in reading. As an adult, he remained “a child who never grew up.” He led a dissipated life, took to the sea, died young, and, according to Moore, was the inspiration behind Jane Austen’s character, the “very troublesome, hopeless son,” Dick Musgrove, in Persuasion.
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Although Thomas Day is the villain of Moore’s story, her book should remind us of another culprit: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who inspired both Thomas Day and Richard Edgeworth in their disastrous, inhuman experiments—and many progressive movements’ since in theirs.
What was it about the Emile that led Thomas Day down this terrible path? We’ll never know for sure, but we can hazard some guesses about what went wrong. In educating Emile and preparing him for the day he will choose a wife, Rousseau stresses the importance of first creating an imaginary woman for him to fall in love with, one who possesses qualities that the tutor thinks will best suit Emile.
It is unimportant whether the object I depict for him is imaginary; it suffices that it make him disgusted with those that could tempt him; it suffices that he everywhere find comparisons which make him prefer his chimera to real objects that strike his eye. And what is true love itself if it is not a chimera, lie, and illusion? We love the image we make for ourselves far more than we love the object to which we apply it. If we saw what we love exactly as it is, there would be no more love on earth.
While there is, to be sure, a need to adorn and elevate human passions and to have an idea of what qualities are desirable in a potential soul-mate, one can also get carried away in such an effort, and Rousseau can rightly be criticized for stoking the imagination to an extent that it becomes impossible to function in society. If his aim in the Emile is to raise an individual who unites the best that is natural with civil society, he failed in this regard by setting an impossible standard.
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For all the oddities of his story Thomas Day is a case in point. Day fell in love with someone—or something—that did not (and could not) exist. Instead of finding his soul-mate in a real person, Day imposed his chimera on two unsuspecting young girls—seeking to force them into become something that was beyond human. Rousseau seemed to realize how reckless this experiment would be, for he paints a picture of another young woman, whom he also bizarrely names “Sophie” as a cautionary lesson in the Emile. This Sophie cultivated an imaginary love for Telemarchus, son of Ulysses, who was depicted in Fenelon’s novel, The Adventures of Telemarchus. She could not find such a man when she came of age, which led eventually to her depression and demise. Her parents, Rousseau writes, “had not formed her for a man of her times” and gave her too “lively of an imagination.” Rousseau assures the reader that his Sophie, who will marry Emile, will not make such a mistake. This part comes towards the end of the Emile, in Book V, and I remember my first time reading theEmile in graduate school and feeling like I had just had the rug pulled out from under me. It seemed to me that Rousseau was setting up his whole project for failure. Perhaps it is no surprise that in Rousseau’s unfinished sequel to the Emile, Sophie becomes impregnated from an affair with another man.
Moore’s book is important for many reasons, chief among them being how it reminds us of Rousseau’s paradoxes and shortcomings. By setting up set-by-step an image of the perfect man and woman in nature, Rousseau fed the oldest of temptations—”you shall be as gods.” His vanity has been all too contagious and the results have not been a new Eden, but the Terror of the French Revolution, the depravities of Communism and fascism, the failed experiments of progressive education, and the more destructive elements of the counterculture—to all of which we can now add, the little-known but telling hubris of Thomas Day.