The book tells the story of Thomas Day, an 18th century Rousseau-fanatic and abolitionist, focusing on his experiment to obtain a foundling and train her up to be a suitable wife. This idea came after several failed marriage proposals ("He would later describe Margaret as 'a toad, which I would not injure, but cannot help beholding with abhorrence.'"
Rousseau had written a novel outlining a radical unschooling idea (it also inspired Montessori) that a friend of Day's had adopted for his son. The kid turned into a brat. This didn't stop Day from trying his own hand at perfecting a suitable wife.
Day actually acquired two foundlings under the false pretense that he was getting domestic servants for a friend. While the girls did cook and clean, they also received educations of a sort. In addition to philosophy and science, they were also subjected to physical privation to toughen them up, with mixed results.
"'His experiments had not the success he wished and expected,' Anna Seward would later write. 'Her spirit could not be armed against the dread of pain, and the appearance of danger. . . . When he dropped melted sealing-wax upon her arms she did not endure it heroically, nor when he fired pistols at her petticoats, which she believed to be charged with balls, could she help starting aside, or suppress her screams.'"
While Day appears to have been scrupulous about not taking advantage of the girls (except for that melted wax fixation...) the whole thing would have scandalized the nation... except that Day was mega-wealthy and connected, and could do as he pleased, more or less. Perhaps(?) one sign of this scrupulousness is that he never told the girls of the real goal of his experiment (though several friends were well aware of it).
One girl was dismissed (with a nice pension) when Day finally decided which of the two he thought would be suitable. To make a long-but-fasinating story short, when Day finally got around to explaining the experiment to Sabrina, she freaked and refused him. He gave her a nice settlement as well, and she ultimately married a mutual acquaintance, and lived a fairly long life, working in a school after the death of her husband.
Some more tasty quotes, jotted down from my Kindle notes:
And the classicist Elizabeth Carter was so revered as a linguist that Samuel Johnson believed her Greek translations were superior to those of any male scholar, although he was quick to point out that she could also make a pudding.
He soon teamed up with Sir Francis Blake Delaval, a gambler, drunkard and libertine notorious for his wild antics, whose idea of a good time included contests to ride horses up a grand marble staircase and party games to bite the heads off sparrows suspended on strings in a macabre version of bobbing for apples.
In one painting, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, he portrayed girls and boys watching a demonstration of a bird, a white cockatoo, being deprived of air in a vacuum flask with a mixture of fascination and horror.
[Speaking of the founder of the foundling hospital]: "But most shocking of all, as he walked to London and back each day, was the sight of abandoned babies “sometimes alive, sometimes dead, and sometimes dying,” dumped on rubbish heaps by the side of the road.
[Entries from the Foundling Hospital records] - One child was described as “a Mear Skirlinton Covered with Rags with a hole in the Roofe of the Mouth,” while another was simply “The most miserable object Ever Received.” Mortality rates leapt from an already tragic 45 percent to more than 70 percent...
According to the unwritten code of conduct that constrained Georgian society like a corset it was strictly taboo for a respectable woman to be left alone with a man under any circumstances unless they were formally engaged; and even then a chaperone was usually mandatory. Even exchanging letters between a single man and a single woman was frowned upon. The entire plot of Fanny Burney’s novel, Evelina, hinges upon the heroine’s horror at her (mistaken) belief that her hero asks her to collude in a private correspondence.
[Day was also an ardent abolitionist] - Published as an anonymous pamphlet at the end of June 1773, The Dying Negro related the true story of a slave who had escaped the previous month from the London house of his master, a certain Captain Ordington, and been baptized in order to marry a fellow servant, an English maid, with whom he had fallen in love. Marriage to an Englishwoman would automatically have made the African a free man. But before the couple had time to say their vows, the slave was seized on the London streets and taken on board the captain’s ship moored in the Thames and bound for the West Indies. Desperate to avoid being sent back to a life of bondage, the slave shot himself in the head with a pistol.
Discussing the vexed question of independence with American friends in rowdy debates in Middle Temple Hall or the smoky taverns nearby, Day announced that he could not support the Americans’cries for liberty while they denied that same right to thousands of slaves.
“The Dutch ladies are, to my taste, not a little disagreeable,” he solemnly informed his mother. “They are so intolerably nasty and gluttonous, stuffing themselves all day with bread and butter and tea, then retiring to discharge their superfluities at the little house, without any decency, or even taking the trouble to shut the door.”