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The 1796 “perfect wife” experiment of Thomas Day, inspired by Rousseau, took control freak to new levels

During his studies at Oxford, the author Thomas Day was amused by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s book Emile, or On Education, which contained practical ideas about education. Inspired by the book, Day decided to write a list of requirements for his future wife and started searching for one.

While in university he was rejected by a few women, hence, he decided to make one, i.e. to educate one, using his own concepts and Rousseau’s theory.

In 1796, supported by his barrister friend by John Bicknell, Day chose two girls from orphanages, ages 11 and 12. His idea was that the one who would prove herself to satisfy his concept of a perfect woman would become his wife.

Day, who inherited a fortune from his father in his infancy, has been described as a short-tempered character with a brooding personality and a face marked with smallpox scars. His friend Richard Lovell Edgeworth was also introduced to Rousseau’s work and the two men became admirers of the philosopher, with a particular affinity for his book Emile, or On Education.

Thomas Day in 1770
Thomas Day in 1770

Day had performed his first Emile style educating exercise, the learning-by-doing technique, on Edgeworth’s son, Dick. After graduating from Oxford, he accompanied his friend to Ireland as a tutor to Dick. After falling in and out of love, Day concluded that it would be impossible to find a wife who would match his standards.

Blaming women’s education for his “misfortune,” he found the solution in “creating” his ideal wife, which meant that he should raise her from her adolescence using the techniques laid in Rousseau’s book.

Richard Lovell Edgeworth
Richard Lovell Edgeworth

Along with his friend, Bicknell, an English barrister and writer, Day created a plan to find two girls who he would groom to become a perfect wife. Just as the expectations of any experiment, a failure was anticipated, so he decided on taking two girls instead of one – if one failed to “pass the test,” the other probably wouldn’t. So, right after his 21st birthday, a time when he was also given a full access to his money, Day traveled with Bicknell to the Shrewsbury Orphan Hospital to select the first girl. Day had a hard time choosing a girl, so Bicknell picked out a 12-year-old named Sabrina.

Sabrina was described as beautiful and with a pleasant voice. Of course, the reason for adopting a girl wasn’t mentioned to the orphanage secretary, instead, by the orphanage policies, for the foster parent to be in marriage, the two friends stated Edgeworth as the person legally accountable for Sabrina. At the time Edgeworth wasn’t aware of the arrangement. Sabrina and Day met for the first time at the lodgings in London, in August 1769. He changed her name to Sidney after one of his heroes, Algernon Sidney. Just a month later he chose the other girl for his experiment and named her Lucretia, after the Roman matron.

Shrewsbury Orphan Hospital, which now forms part of Shrewsbury School. Author: Gnesener1900  CC BY-SA 3.0
Shrewsbury Orphan Hospital, which now forms part of Shrewsbury School. Author: Gnesener1900  CC BY-SA 3.0

A contract was made for the girls stating that in a period of a year, Day would choose the one he would marry while the other one would be given as an apprentice to a woman in a trade and also a fee of 100 pounds (equivalent to $15,734 in 2017). When the girl decided to marry, or if she were willing to start her own business, Day would pay her a further 400 pounds (equivalent of $62,936 in 2017). In case he decided not to marry his intended bride, he would pay her the fee of 500 pounds (equivalent of $78,671 in 2017). Bicknell signed as guarantor for the contract.

Wishing for the girls to be influenced solely by him, Day moved with them to France. As they could not understand French, it was easy for Day to be their sole educator. Following the education techniques in Emile, Day focussed exclusively on the girls’ education. He expanded their primary education to basic arithmetic and reading while at the same time they had responsibilities such as cleaning, cooking, and other housework. Willing to discuss complex concepts with the girls, Day taught them rudimentary theories in physics and geography. The girls received tasks such as observing the seasons’ changes and writing down details of the sunsets and sunrises. Day also presented to them the philosophical contempt for luxury according to Rousseau.

Rousseau’s Emile, or On Education
Rousseau’s Emile, or On Education

In his letters to Edgeworth, Day revealed his favoring of Sabrina as she appeared more willing to be taught than Lucretia. However, according to 19th-century historians, both girls became bored with their education, which made Day impatient and angry. In the spring of 1770, Day and the girls returned to England. where Lucretia was apprenticed to a milliner while Sabrina’s education was taken to another level.

In Emile, Rousseau explains the concept of “negative education,” which Day interpreted to mean that he should submit the girl to endurance tests that would help in hardening her nerves. Attempting to increase Sabrina’s resistance to pain, for example, Day would pour hot sealing wax over her back and arms, or stick pins in her while at the same time he commanded her not to cry out. Rousseau also stated that the person would get accustomed to explosives if, for example, fireworks or pistols explode near them. So Day shot a pistol loaded with powder directly into the girl’s petticoat.

To test her resistance to luxury, Day gave Sabrina a box full of silk and ordered her to throw it all in the fire. In the end, he had some success with her education but not a complete one. Sabrina could endure the hot wax without a sound but couldn’t prevent herself from screaming when Day fired his gun at her. There came a time when Sabrina started questioning the techniques that Day used and to complain about things she was asked to do. Edgeworth visited Day and Sabrina for Christmas 1770 and suggested to his friend that the experiment had failed and that he couldn’t keep Sabrina any longer without marrying her because she was already too old.

Day made a decision and in early 1771 sent Sabrina to Sutton Coldfield boarding school, where she remained for three years. In 1774, he arranged for Sabrina to become an apprentice to the Parkinsons, a dressmaking family. She fitted greatly in her new position, and the family treated her well, but unfortunately, their business went bankrupt less than a year later, leaving Sabrina with nowhere to go. Day arranged for her to become a housekeeper at the home of his friends, the Keir family.

When Sabrina was 18, Day started reconsidering his decision to marry her. He began testing her again, and she appeared more responsive to his requirements, which made him think that he might have successfully created a perfect wife for himself. She found out about his intentions and eventually agreed to marry Day, so they became engaged.

However, he was strict in his requirements about how she dressed and during one visit to the Keir family, Day gave precise instructions to his “future perfect wife” about what to wear. Moreover, it just happened that on the next visit to his friends, Sabrina wasn’t dressed by Day’s instructions, which resulted in his furious anger. He made his final decision:  Sabrina did not fit his image of a perfect wife so he called off the engagement, sent her to a Birmingham boarding house with a stipend of 50 pounds per year (equivalent to $7,134 in 2017), and resolved never to see her again.

Day was finally married in 1778 to an heiress, Esther Milnes. After eight years living in boarding houses around Birmingham, Sabrina received a marriage proposal from an apothecary. She wrote to Day asking for permission, but his answer was a strict no, and he even wrote a letter of refusal for her.

Bicknell steps back into the story in 1783. He proposed marriage to Sabrina and again, she consulted Day about this. When once again he advised her not to accept the proposal, Bucknell told her the whole truth about her adoption and the purpose of her education.

Frontispiece to Rousseau’s Émile by De Launay for the 1782 edition. The original caption reads: “A man’s education begins at birth”
Frontispiece to Rousseau’s Émile by De Launay for the 1782 edition. The original caption reads: “A man’s education begins at birth”


The failed perfect wife was furious when she realized the true nature of her education. She wrote several letters to Day in which she expressed her anger. Although he confessed that it was true, Day never apologized to Sabrina. Things settled and she eventually married Bicknell, while Day paid her dowry of 500 pounds in accordance with the contract made when he adopted her. The couple bought a house and had two children. However, the money they had disappeared due to Bicknell’s gambling habits. After only three years of marriage, Bicknell died of a paralytic stroke, leaving his family without any savings nor income.

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However, Day sent Sabrina a new stipend of 30 pounds per year. Bicknell’s barrister friends raised some 800 pounds for her and the children, and she also found a job as housekeeper in the home of Charles Burney, a schoolmaster, and clergyman. After Day’s death, his widow, Ester, continued to send money to Sabrina who worked for Burney until she was 68.

By the time she stopped working, Sabrina had her own four-storey house with servants. She died of a severe asthma attack in 1843, at the age of 86.

Tijana Radeska

Tijana Radeska is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News