How to Create the Perfect Wife:
Britain’s Most Ineligible Bachelor and His Enlightened Quest to Train the Ideal Mate
By Wendy Moore
Basic, 343 pp., illustrated, $27.99
Thomas Day, wealthy and landed, was most certainly in want of a wife, to borrow from Jane Austen. In this extraordinarily strange and entertaining book, Wendy Moore details Day’s odd journey to the altar in 18th-century England, a time and place where marriages were expected to be sensible, socially and economically suitable, and end only due to death. In this very settled, conformist society, Day was an oddball from the start. He refused to follow the rules of polite dress or conversation; his personality was a mess, comprising a “gloomy, melancholic outlook and dogmatic, overbearing manner”; and his close reading of Rousseau convinced him that the best life was one of natural virtue, far from civilization’s artificiality, in which he and a worshipful wife would live simply. A number of women rejected his notion of the ideal marriage; as Moore points out drily, “There was just something about Day’s vision of married bliss in a remote hovel in complete subservience to his whim that apparently did not appeal.” His luck failing with a series of young women who shared his age and social class, Day made a bold decision: “If the perfect wife did not exist then he would simply have to create her.”
In 1769, soon after turning 21 and coming into his fortune, Day, in effect, purchased two prepubescent orphans from the Orphan Hospital at Shrewsbury (a subsequent large donation made Day a governor of the institution). He renamed them Sabrina and Lucretia and set about trying to mold them. Discarded as “invincibly stupid,” Lucretia was fortunate to lose the competition, as Day spent two years subjecting Sabrina to a combination of tutor and torture, including burning her with sealing wax to build up her stoicism. Author of an admired abolitionist poem and one of the era’s most-read children’s books, Day nonetheless “was utterly convinced he had every right to keep a young woman subject to his total command and groom her to meet his desires.” Moore’s acerbic dissection of Day’s hypocrisy — and the surprising unfolding of the story — make this a lively, compelling read.
400 Years of Beats and Bohemians, Radicals and Rogues: A History of Greenwich Village
By John Strausbaugh
Ecco, 624 pp., illustrated, $29.99
From its earliest days as a village, outside the limits of a newborn New York City in the 17th and 18th centuries, Greenwich Village has exerted its own autonomous identity. A place of narrow streets that don’t conform to the rest of Manhattan’s hyperlogical grid, the Village has welcomed nonconformists for over three centuries now. John Strausbaugh’s doorstop of a book chronicles just about all of them — somehow, the avalanche of stories between its covers is more exhilarating than overwhelming.
Here we meet some of the neighborhood’s great bohemians, from Edgar Allan Poe, who moved to Waverly Place in 1837 — when it “was still, if barely, the suburbs.” There were the poets and journalists who gathered at Pfaff’s, a watering hole that attracted enough attention that in 1858 The New York Times wrote about its regulars disparagingly: “The true Bohemian has either written an unsuccessful play, or painted an unsalable picture, or published an unreadable book, or composed an unsung opera.” These days an unsuccessful writer can’t afford to live in the Village (without a trust fund or well-paid day job), a transition that inevitably lends an elegiac tone to the book’s ending. Still, for those longing to learn about a great neighborhood’s astonishing past — or seeking a blueprint for what makes a neighborhood great and astonishing — this book is like a treasure chest.
By Jennifer Gilmore
Scribner, 277 pp., $26
Jesse and Ramon, the couple at the center of Jennifer Gilmore’s new novel, find themselves in a slough of infertility and failed reproductive interventions, a journey that feels like a “path through the fairy-tale forest to hell.” Soon they are staring down the rabbit hole of adoption. In “The Mothers,” the questions of who can birth a baby and who can mother it obsess Jesse, a philosophical riddle that accompanies her through training sessions, letter writing, home visits, and the harrowing experience of being strung along by emotionally manipulative individuals posing as pregnant women considering the couple as potential adoptive parents.
There is a lot of anguish in this book, and a reader’s reaction to it may depend on her or his own experiences with family, childbearing, and adoption. Some may find Jesse’s bitterness off-putting, while others will embrace Gilmore’s willingness to probe deeply into her ugliest feelings. Amid the raw anger and disappointment, though, Gilmore’s Jesse finds that she can still depend on “the surprising durability of my own heart,” which feels like hard-won wisdom in the face of devastating pain.
Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.