How to Create the Perfect Wife

Britain's Most Ineligible Bachelor and his Enlightened Quest to Train the Ideal Mate


By Wendy Moore

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A captivating tale of one man’s mission to groom his ideal mate.

Thomas Day, an 18th-century British writer and radical, knew exactly the sort of woman he wanted to marry. Pure and virginal, yet tough and hardy, and completely subervient to his whims. But after being rejected by a number of spirited young women, Day concluded that the perfect partner he envisioned simply did not exist in frivolous, fashion-obsessed Georgian society. Rather than conceding defeat and giving up on his search for the woman of his dreams, however, Day set out to create her.

So begins the extraordinary true story at the heart of How to Create the Perfect Wife. A few days after he turned twenty-one and inherited a large fortune, Day adopted two young orphans from the Founding Hospital and, guided by the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the principles of the Enlightenment, attempted to teach them to be model wives.

Day’s peculiar experiment inevitably backfired — though not before he had taken his theories about marriage, education, and femininity to shocking extremes.

Stranger than fiction, blending tragedy and farce, How to Create the Perfect Wife is an engrossing tale of the radicalism — and deep contradictions — at the heart of the enlightenment.

























Researching and writing this book has been a delight and a challenge. Finding my foundling proved to be one of the biggest and most delightful of those challenges. I began my search with little hope of success in the voluminous records of the Foundling Hospital kept at London Metropolitan Archives. All I knew from previous books was that Thomas Day was said to have chosen a foundling who was apprenticed to Richard Lovell Edgeworth in the latter part of 1769 and renamed her Sabrina Sidney. I had no idea of her name in the Foundling Hospital or before she arrived. It was entirely possible that the whole story was apocryphal and that Day had never taken Sabrina—or for that matter Lucretia—from the Foundling Hospital at all.

Previous writers describing Day’s story had asserted or repeated that there was no record of a girl being apprenticed by Day in the archives of the Shrewsbury Foundling Hospital. This was true. But I quickly discovered that all orphans from the branch hospitals were apprenticed centrally through the charity’s London headquarters—and of course it was Edgeworth not Day to whom Sabrina had been apprenticed. With trepidation I scoured the charity’s apprenticeship register for 1769. There, to my amazement, it was plainly written that two girls were apprenticed to Richard Lovell Edgeworth on August 17 and September 20, 1769. Their names—and even more important their numbers—were given as Ann Kingston, no. 4579, and Dorcas Car, no. 10,413. I had found my foundlings.

Armed with their numbers—those numbers that were stamped on lead tags tied around their necks—I could now trace their lives from the moment they entered the Foundling Hospital gates until the moment they left. Almost holding my breath, I found their original admission forms, filled out nearly 250 years ago, giving their date of arrival and original names, in the hospital’s remarkable billet books. Following the paper trail, through the bundles of letters and giant ledgers, the rushed scrawls of hospital inspectors and the unfortunately named Shrewsbury “Waste Book,” I tracked Sabrina’s footsteps as she toddled in the fields around Dorking, trundled in the wagon heading for Shrewsbury, thrived with her second foster family near the town, walked through the doors of the Shrewsbury Foundling Hospital at the age of seven and walked out again with Thomas Day and John Bicknell five years later. That was the easy part.

Following Sabrina through the rest of her life was at times infuriatingly difficult. Since she was never very wealthy, she left few legal documents or financial transactions. Since she was not well connected—except through Day—she cropped up rarely in other people’s correspondence or documents. Because she was female she lived her life under the patronage of men, her movements, actions and views all subsumed under their command. And, of course, Day and his acolytes tried their utmost to erase Sabrina from their records while she and her family tried their best to conceal her origins. Only a few letters in her hand, to her benefactor Charles Burney and lifelong friends the Edgeworth family, have survived. The only portrait, an engraving of a lost oil painting, reputed to depict Sabrina seemed dubious. And so Sabrina disappeared and reappeared, vanishing in the fogs and smoke of the industrial Midlands and reemerging in Lichfield, London and Greenwich.

Yet many of the places where she lived, where she ate, drank, slept and talked, survive. The Shrewsbury Foundling Hospital stands virtually unchanged at the top of the hill overlooking the River Severn. Stowe House still hovers ghostly white beside the banks of Stowe Poole. And the house in Greenwich, where her life ended, still sits in the middle of the stately crescent now renamed Gloucester Circus. Frustrated by these blank walls, the places where she had spent her life, I doubted that the portrait that was supposed to show Sabrina was truly her. It was almost identical to another with a different name. On my last day of research I visited the archives of the National Portrait Gallery and there discovered firm proof that the portrait of the smiling, self-confident, curly-haired woman was indeed Sabrina.

Finding Sabrina’s final resting place proved nearly as tantalizing as tracking down her beginnings. The records of the General Cemetery Company, which manages Kensal Green Cemetery, are as well kept as those of the Foundling Hospital. Armed with another number, designating her burial place, I arrived at the vast cemetery on an icily cold February morning eager to find her grave. But searching among the broken and sunken gravestones crowded into the corresponding corner of the cemetery I could not find Sabrina’s name anywhere. On the point of giving up, I spotted a stone cross—newer than all the rest—which bore the name Bicknell. It was a memorial to Sabrina’s granddaughter, Jane Grant Bicknell, who had lived until 1905. On either side of the cross were two headstones. On the right I could just make out the name of John Laurens Bicknell. The gravestone on the left therefore had to belong to Sabrina. All the writing had been worn completely smooth, and the headstone was totally blank. I had found her, but she remained as elusive and silent as ever. Walking back to the cemetery gates, I realized that I had lost an earring. I could have turned back to look for it, but it was bitterly cold. And it seemed only right to leave behind one of a pair, a token, for my foundling.


This book owes its existence to the help and generosity of many people and many organizations. In particular I would like to pay tribute to librarians and archivists everywhere, the unsung heroes who safeguard our past, for their unstinting devotion and priceless work at a time when their resources have been and are still under severe threats and pressures.

For permission to use the archives of the Foundling Hospital, which were so crucial to this story, I wish to thank the Coram Foundation. I am indebted to the staff at the London Metropolitan Archives, where the Foundling Hospital records are kept, for their guidance. Permission to quote from the Edgeworth Papers is due to the courtesy of the National Library of Ireland, where I would like to thank James Harte and Berni Metcalfe for their prompt help. I am grateful to Middle Temple Archives for permission to use the records held there and especially to the curator Lesley Whitelaw for her invaluable knowledge and kind hospitality. I wish to thank the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum, Lichfield, for permission to use the letters of Anna Seward and particularly curator Joanne Wilson, who went out of her way to make my visits such a pleasure. For permission to quote from Fanny Burney’s notebooks I thank the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature at New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations. For access to the Burney Family Collection in the James Marshall and Marie-Louise Osborn Collection I wish to thank the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. I would like to thank Lichfield Record Office. for permission to use their archives. For permission to use the Barrington Family archives I wish to thank Essex Record Office. My thanks are due to Birmingham Central Library for permission to quote from the Boulton Papers and Watt Papers in the Soho Archives held there. I am grateful to the National Portrait Gallery for permission to quote from Joseph Wright’s account book, Richard James Lane’s account books and other archive material held there, and especially to assistant curator Alexandra Ault. I am grateful to University College London Special Collections for access to the Pearson Papers. I would like to thank Staffordshire Record Office for access to letters and diaries belonging to the Sneyd family. My thanks are due to the William Salt Library for permission to quote from letters between Thomas Day and Anna Seward and especially to assistant librarian Dominic Farr. For permission to quote from the Darwin papers I wish to thank the Syndics of Cambridge University Library and would like to record my particular thanks to Adam Perkins. I wish to thank Lambeth Archives Department for permission to quote from John Graham’s letters. In addition I want to thank staff at Greenwich Heritage Centre for their help in researching the Burney School and Greenwich history. I am grateful to staff at the John Soane Archives at Sir John Soane’s Museum for help researching John Laurens Bicknell’s connections with John Soane. I would also like to record my thanks to staff at the British Library (especially for the warm and efficient help in the Rare Books and Music reading room), the Wellcome Library, the Foundling Hospital Museum, the Royal Society of Arts, the Society of Genealogists, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Household Cavalry Archive, Islington Local History Centre, Surrey History Centre, Manchester Art Gallery, Derby Museums and Art Gallery, Bath Record Office and Sutton Coldfield Library.

Among the great pleasures in researching this book have been my visits to Lichfield and the generous help of various people based there. I want to thank Alan Baker for taking the time to show me around Stowe House, now owned by the Institute of Leadership and Management. I am grateful to Jenny Arthur and all the staff of Erasmus Darwin House for their help and to Pauline Duval at The Bogey Hole for her kind hospitality. Likewise it was a delight to visit Shrewsbury School, where the former Shrewsbury Foundling Hospital survives intact as the main block, and I am grateful to Mike Morrogh for taking time to show me around.

So many individual people have played a vital role in helping me to research and write this book. I feel privileged to have been welcomed into the Burney Society and will always have fond memories of the society’s conference in Paris in 2010. It is impossible to pay tribute to everyone within the society who has provided me with advice, support and encouragement, but I particularly want to say thank you to Hester Davenport, Lorna Clark, Peter Sabor, Nick Cambridge, Kate Chisholm, Helen Cooper, Catherine Dille, Jacqueline Grainger, Zandra O’Donnell, Elizabeth Burney Parker and Sophie Vasset. Cynthia Comyn, the widow of John Comyn, a descendant of Charles Burney, kindly answered my requests for information. Desmond King-Hele, biographer of Erasmus Darwin, generously gave me his help and in particular pointed me toward Day’s brief engagement to Elizabeth Hall. Peter Rowland, author of the last biography of Thomas Day, was extremely kind in sharing with me new sources of information that had come to light since his book was published as well as directing me toward Henry James’s Watch and Ward. Eric Stockdale brought eighteenth-century Middle Temple Hall to life for me and kindly treated me to lunch under the wonderful double hammerbeamed roof as well as answering my queries on legal history. Mick Crumplin gave me his usual prompt and impeccable advice on weaponry. Elizabeth E. Barker helped with trying to date Joseph Wright’s portrait of Day, and Kate Barnard gave me valuable advice on Anna Seward. Rachel Hall and Sophie Kilic were both fantastic aides in French translation and especially in helping me to decipher Fanny Burney’s untidy, eccentric and inaccurate eighteenth-century French. Mike Cudmore gave his unstinting and uncomplaining help as always in sorting out the usual technological issues.

Jacky Worthington was an invaluable help in tracing descendants of Sabrina Bicknell and others, often burning the midnight computer screen to follow a promising lead down the centuries. It was through Jacky that I managed to contact some of Sabrina’s living descendants, including Elizabeth Kiddle and Julia Wells, who helped further with my research and took a keen interest in the story. I am also grateful to Marcus Bicknell, who runs the current Bicknell family tree website, for his aid.

As ever I count myself extremely lucky to benefit from the unerring support, guidance and friendship of my agent, Patrick Walsh. My editor Kirsty Dunseath, at Weidenfeld and Nicolson in the UK, has played an invaluable and inspiring role, as she always does, in helping me to shape, improve and polish this book. Somehow Kirsty seems to know exactly what I meant to do even if I haven’t yet done it. At Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Jennifer Kerslake gave timely and efficient help in picture records. I am extremely grateful too to Lara Heimert, my editor at Basic Books in the United States, for her enthusiasm and commitment to this project, to Katy O’Donnell for her guidance and to Norman MacAfee, for his meticulous and wise editing.

Finally I want to thank my family and friends for giving me the practical, emotional and physical help that has been essential in writing this book from beginning to end. Most of all, my thanks are to Sam and Susie, for their usual forbearance and patience, and to my husband, Peter, my first reader and my constant support.


1.    Thomas Day by Joseph Wright, 1770 (Manchester Art Gallery)

2.    top left Richard Lovell Edgeworth by Antoine Cardon, 1812 (National Library of Ireland); top right Erasmus Darwin by Joseph Wright, c. 1770 (The Erasmus Darwin Foundation, Lichfield); bottom left Jean-Jacques Rousseau by Allan Ramsay, 1766 (Scottish National Gallery); bottom right James Keir, engraving by W. H. Worthington, after L. de Longastre (Wellcome Library, London)

3.    top left Anna Seward by Tilly Kettle, 1762 (British Library/Robana via Getty Images); top right Honora Sneyd, medallion from Josiah Wedgwood’s factory, 1780 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London); bottom left Esther Milnes by James Millar, c. 1780 (the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum, Lichfield); bottom right Maria Edgeworth by unknown engraver, c. 1754 (Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

4.    top The London Foundling Hospital, engraving by B. Cole, 1755 (Coram, in the care of the Foundling Museum, London); bottom left Thomas Coram by William Hogarth, 1740 (Coram, in the care of the Foundling Museum, London); bottom right Tokens left at the Foundling Hospital (the Foundling Museum, London)

5.    top left Billet form for Monimia Butler, 1757 (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives/Foundling Hospital Deposit); top right Apprenticeship indenture for Ann Kingston, 1769 (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives/Foundling Hospital Archives Deposit); bottom Shrewsbury House of Industry, colored aquatint published by C. Hulbert, c. 1830 (Shropshire Archives)

6.    top The Bow and The Minuet, from Leith Davis, The Polite Academy, London, 1762 (British Library); bottom The Temple, 1722 (by kind permission of the Masters of the Bench of the Honourable Society of the Middle Temple)

7.    top left Charles Burney by William Sharp, 1821 (National Portrait Gallery, London); top right Fanny Burney by Edward Burney, 1782 (the Collection at Parham Park, West Sussex); bottom Dr Burney’s House by R. B., 1839 (Greenwich Heritage Centre)

8.    top Sabrina Bicknell by Richard James Lane, after Stephen Poyntz Denning, 1833 (National Portrait Gallery, London); bottom left Henry Edgeworth Bicknell by Charles Baugniet, 1853 (National Portrait Gallery, London); bottom right John Laurens Bicknell, lithograph by Charles Baugniet, 1845 (Wellcome Library, London)



Comparing sums of money between the eighteenth century and today is fraught with problems. However, where comparisons are given these are based on the Bank of England inflation calculator using figures for 2011:

All references to weather are taken from meteorological reports in the Gentleman’s Magazine and other contemporary records.


    1    Thomas Day read the letter: Edgeworth, RL and M, vol. 1, pp. 208–9. Edgeworth describes the visit to Ireland on pp. 196–99. RLE states that they left for Ireland in “spring 1768.” However, the Buttery Books at Middle Temple for that year show that RLE dined there until the week of May 8–14. And since the travelers met Darwin on their route this must have been before Darwin’s carriage accident, which laid him up for several weeks, on July 11 that year. They must have left, therefore, between late May and early July. The family history, family house and surrounding countryside are described in The Black Book of Edgeworthstown and Other Edgeworth Memories, which was handed down in the Edgeworth family. See Butler, Harriet Jessie and Harold Edgeworth.

    2    One acquaintance would later say that if Margaret appeared: Edgeworth, FA, p. 18.

    2    Even his close friend Edgeworth: Edgeworth, RL and M, vol. 1, p. 175.

    2    At the dinner table Day’s manners: Edgeworth, RL and M, vol. 1, p. 197.

    4    As Day told a friend at the time: TD to JB, n.d. (postmarked October 11 and must be 1768, but mostly written three weeks earlier, i.e., September 20) Essex RO, D/DBa C10. Day describes the on-off relationship with Margaret in this 11-page letter as well as her previous romance with the English officer.

    5    He had suffered rejection before: TD to JB, n.d. (c. 1765), three letters and three fragments from Day at Oxford to Bicknell, Essex RO, D/DBa C10.

    5    He would later describe Margaret: TD to AS, March 14, 1771, SJBM, 2001.71.17. Although this letter is dated 1771, it was probably written in 1772 since it refers to events—such as Elizabeth Sneyd’s arrival in Lichfield and Day’s winter of being groomed—which had not happened until then.

    6    “These my Friend are the Prejudices”: TD to JB, n.d. Essex RO, D/DBa C10.


    9    The crowded room hushed: Keir, pp. 108–9.

  10    Thomas Day was born on June 22: Day’s early years are described in Keir, pp. 4–5; Kippis; and Gignilliat, pp. 1–2. Gignilliat says Day’s mother was 27 when she married in 1746, but Keir states that she was 70 in 1791 so she was actually 25. A correspondent writing to the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1791, signing himself “E” and describing Day as “my old playfellow,” says Day Sr. was deputy collector of customs outward (not collector as Keir states) and gives his date of death as July 24, 1749. This writer, probably RLE, states that Phillips was an usher in the same office. GM, 1791, vol. 61, part 1, p. 401.

  10    Baby Thomas was baptized: Parish register, St. George-in-the-East, LMA.

  10    From his motherwho once stared down a bull: Keir, p. 16.

  10    Soon after she was widowed: Keir, p. 5.

  11    Thomas and his stepfather would never see eye to eye: Seward (1804), p. 27.

  11    Barehill, near Wargrave, in Berkshire: The area, neighboring Kiln Green, five miles south of Henley-on-Thames, was called either Bare or Bear Hill in the eighteenth century but is now known as Bear Lane.

  12    One of about a hundred boarding pupils: Anon, Charter-House, Its Foundation and History (London, 1849); Thornbury, Walter, Old and New London (London, 1897), vol. 2, pp. 380–404; Wheatley, Henry Benjamin, London, Past and Present, vol. 1, pp. 362–66; Quick, Anthony, Charterhouse, A History of the School (London, 1990). General background on eighteenth-century education is from Fletcher.

  12    He even gained a reputation: Keir, p. 11. Keir cites William Seward as giving the anecdote about boxing.

  13    Indeed one version of the boxing story: Stephen.

  13    it was published in a London newspaper: Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, May 5 and August 15, 1764. The verses were published in two parts so Day and Bicknell were actually 16 and 18 by the time the second verses appeared. Gignilliat attributes the poem to Day, but it was almost certainly a collaboration since Day asked Bicknell in a letter from Oxford (n.d.), “I suppose Knife & Fork is consign’d to Rust.” Essex RO, D/DBa C10.

  13    Bicknell was “in the strictest sense”: Kippis.

  14    Gibbon described the few classes: Gibbon, Edward, Memoirs of My Life, ed. Radice, Betty (Harmondsworth, UK, 1984), pp. 77–86. General background on Oxford University is from Midgley, Graham, University Life in Eighteenth-Century Oxford (New Haven; London, 1996); details on Corpus Christi are from Fowler, Thomas, Corpus Christi (Oxford, 1898).

  15    Arriving in Oxford in his black silk gown: University of Oxford, Alumni Ox-onienses, 1715–1886 (London; Oxford, 1887–88), vol. 1, p. 357. The college architecture is largely unchanged today.

  16    Day liked to “descant at large”: Edgeworth, RL and M, vol. 1, pp. 248 and 341; vol. 2, p. 86. The second comment is from Maria Edgeworth.

  16    Alone in his rooms, he poured: Letters, TD to JB, Essex RO, D/DBa C10. Three letters sent by Day to Bicknell from Oxford have survived. All are undated, but events mentioned suggest they were written in 1765 and 1766. The succeeding quotes are all from these letters. No replies from Bicknell survive.



On Sale
Apr 9, 2013
Page Count
360 pages
Basic Books

Wendy Moore

About the Author

Wendy Moore is a journalist and author of several previous books, including How to Create the Perfect Wife and Wedlock, a Sunday Times bestseller. Her writing has appeared in the Times, the Guardian, the Observer, and the Sunday Telegraph. She lives in London.

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