Sabrina Sidney

Dissatisfied with the opportunities for wedded companionship in his Georgian social circle, Thomas Day (1748-89) decided to create his own.

Thomas was the only heir of the elder Thomas Day and his wife, Jane (née Bonham). He inherited enough wealth to receive a first class education at Charterhouse and Oxford, and did not have to work to make a living. He could have lived in splendid eighteenth century luxury, yet Thomas stubbornly defied convention.

The front gatehouse of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where Thomas Day read Classics until 1767. Here, he also met his lifelong friend, Richard Lovell Edgeworth. Source Wiki site

At Oxford, in an era when the raucous exploits of drinking societies were at their peak and the funding, time and patience spared for libraries and scholarship were at their lowest ever, Thomas Day spent many hours at his study desk, teetotal. He was enrolled in Classics, though he was at liberty never to go to any of the sparsely timetabled lectures or tutorials, and never to sit an exam.

During vacations from Oxford, Thomas Day joined his mother and step-father in Barehill, Berkshire. It was during one of these vacations that he met Richard Lovell Edgeworth, another student at Corpus Christi College.

Disciple of Rousseau

By the age of 20, Thomas Day had experienced disappointment in love. This was not about to change, but a revelation was about to come to the young man. Edgeworth was a disciple of the philosopher and novelist, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the admiration for the French thinker rubbed off on Thomas Day.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a famous contemporary whom Day and Edgeworth once had the fortune to meet, had revolutionary ideas regarding love and companionship. He was not married, but had five children with Thérèse Le Vasseur, all of whom he took to the Foundling Hospital.

Rousseau’s work inspired a rebellious streak among those discontented with the Georgian code of social etiquette and manners: it inspired ‘the culture of sensibility’. Some readers of Rousseau concluded that all the conduct which had been drilled into them as children in the best schools obscured their real desire to show and feel emotion and share it with their fellow men. The champions of ‘sensibility’ wept openly in public, flouting codes dictating the proper way to compose oneself in society.

Rousseau, who lived a very spartan existence, also had some very influential thoughts about human nature, believing that civilised society was a betrayal of man’s original, fundamentally good, primitive existence. Maybe Thomas Day did not quite carry his ideas this far, but he certainly dwelt a great deal on what Rousseau had to say about the education of minors in his novel, Emile.

Title page of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s novel, Emile, which explores Rousseau’s theories of education through fiction. Source Wiki site

Rousseau never intended the novel to be taken literally but Richard Lovell Edgeworth certainly did so following the birth of his first child, Dick. The child turned out to be very bright, inquisitive and free in spirit. He was courageous and quick-witted but, at the age of eight, he could neither read nor write. Thomas Day, who had been there nearly every step of Dick’s upbringing, insisted that Edgeworth should wait until Dick wanted to be taught to read and write. Until then, such education would allegedly pollute his mind.

Reading Rousseau’s Emile, Thomas Day had ideas of his own. He sought to bring an end to his string of terrible attempts at romance and rejected marriage proposals. To do so, he hatched a bizarre plan with the help of his friend, John Bicknell – if he could not find his ideal woman, he would form his own.

Sabrina and Lucretia

Together, in 1769, they bought two orphans from Shrewsbury and London Foundling Hospitals; this was not a problem with England’s urban poverty being so great. The orphanage secretaries were under the impression that Bicknell and Day were going to set the two orphans up as apprentices to Richard Lovell Edgeworth, practicing the household chores they had been taught in the Hospital since an early age.

This 1753 engraving of London Foundling Hospital where Sabrina Sidney lived before Thomas Day took her in as his ‘apprentice’. Source Wiki site

The orphans were 11 and 12 years of age when Thomas Day took them into his care. He had no prior experience of raising children but he did so in the hope that one of them might, one day, be a suitable wife.

Day renamed the girls Sabrina and Lucretia, erasing tracess of their foundling past.  He relocated with them to France, away from the inquisitive eyes of Georgian society.

He had, in fact, agreed that he would raise the girls using his Rousseau-inspired scheme of education, and send the girl who proved the least steely into an apprenticeship. When they reached Avignon, Day began his rigorous education regime.

The aim was to create a calm, unemotional and resolute woman, unflinching from cold, heat, shock and weather. By exposing the children to terrifying ordeals and also to a philosophical education, Day hoped to make them resistant to fashion’s distractions. These, as well as handsome features, if possible, were Thomas Day’s exacting standards for a lifelong domestic companion.

For a turbulent year, Thomas Day subjected Sabrina and Lucretia to numerous tests of their endurance and stoicism, as well as rigorous schooling, to the best of his abilities. On one occasion, Thomas Day nearly drowned the two girls in the river during what was probably a test of their mettle in the cold, it was only his own strong swimming that saved them.

After a whole year, as he had had agreed with John Bicknell, he let Lucretia, the younger girl  go as she was, unsurprisingly, not responding well to this harsh treatment. He allowed her £400 to use as she might and not long afterwards she married a draper-shopkeeper .

Lichfield and The Lunar Society

Day took Sabrina to Lichfield, where the two of them lived in Stowe House. Lichfield was home to the Lunar Society, to which Thomas Day was introduced by Richard Lovell Edgeworth. Edgeworth had captivated the Society with his eye-catching inventions, many of which anticipated modern inventions (though some, like his moving contraption similar to a human hamster wheel, did not).

The Lunar Society was highly progressive, with Erasmus Darwin, William Small, James Watt and James Keir among its regulars. Thomas Day was uninterested in science and was cordial company when he occasionally attended the Society’s meetings, but his experiment with Rousseau’s educational theories – and the fairly recent idea of marrying for love and companionship – may have engaged their interest.

At Stowe House, Day’s experiments on Sabrina had intensified. Day would see what reaction he could provoke in Sabrina by shocking her without warning in a number of ways. He would drop hot sealing wax on her arm and fire pistols (which Sabrina could not tell were unloaded) at her petticoats or next to her ear. To his surprise and dismay, Sabrina did not react well.

An illustration in G.H. Wilson’s The Eccentric Mirror which tells the story of a number of English eccentrics, including Thomas Day, who is seen here firing his pistol at Sabrina’s petticoats. Source Google Books

Come 1770, Sabrina was on the point of turning fourteen and Thomas knew that it would be inappropriate for her to remain in the household alone with an unmarried man any longer. Up until that point, Sabrina had figured regularly in respectable Lichfield high society, which revolved around the Cathedral Close and included the likes of the Darwins, the Sewards and the Bishop of Lichfield.

Thomas Day sent Sabrina Sidney to a boarding school nearby in Sutton Coldfield but regularly visited her to be updated on her good progress. In 1774, when she left the school, at seventeen, she was apprenticed to a family of dressmakers in Lichfield. The business seems to have ceased at some point in 1774-5 and Sabrina returned to Lichfield society, refined by her years at boarding school.

When Sabrina discovered Thomas Day’s true intentions behind the guard he had so forcefully kept over her, she was repulsed. Fortunately, Day had developed another romantic interest in the poetically and philosophically accomplished Esther Milnes of Wakefield. Sabrina turned 21 in 1778 and although Day ceased to be responsible for her he remained her benefactor as he had promised.

What happened next?

Throughout his life, Thomas Day’s agonised over the nature of women and, though he seems to have understood something about Georgian etiquette, it did not lead him to treat women any better. He certainly did not match the typical image of a Georgian man: he neglected to wear powder to cover his face, pock-marked and scarred from smallpox in childhood, or a wig over his lank hair which he washed only in streams.

Thomas Day believed that unequal education put women at an unfair disadvantage. However, his actions reinforced domestic stereotypes because he expected his wife’s undivided attention and her good upbringing and education would be put to no use but his own service and the role of housekeeper:

‘If women are in general feeble both in body and mind, it arises less from nature, than from education; we encourage a vicious indolence and inactivity, which we will falsely call delicacy, instead of hardening their minds by the severer principles of reason and philosophy, we breed them to useless arts which terminate in vanity and sensuality. We seem to forget, that is upon the qualities of the female sex, that out own domestic comforts, and the educations of our children, must depend.’

Day believed that girls should be encouraged to refrain from gaudy, fine clothes and contrived manners, yet he still had a mythical and unrealistic idea of a perfect wife.

The story of Thomas Day’s attempt to mould a foundling into a respectable wife inspired fiction, including George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 play, ‘Pygmalion’. The character Felix Graham in Anthony Trollope’s 1860s novel, ‘Orley Farm’, had Thomas Day’s recognisable smallpox-scarred face and Oxford education, was also based on him.

This is the first page of the will of Thomas Day (1748-89), dated 1780, held at Surrey History Centre’s collections (SHC Ref. 300/6/37). In it he leaves Sabrina Sidney a considerable annual allowance and a dowry.

In the end, Day fulfilled his promise, freed Sabrina and left her a substantial inheritance in his will. Thomas Day did not leave Sabrina to fend for herself as some biographers have claimed. His will of 1780 expressed that Sabrina Sidney should be granted a £50 annuity until she was married, when she should be granted a £500 dowry. Sabrina actually married Day’s friend, John Bicknell, before Day’s death, and the dowry changed hands.

Despite his awful sentiments towards women and the purpose he had devised for Sabrina, Thomas Day left a praiseworthy legacy and had good wishes for those around him at his hime in Anningsley. Maria Edgeworth wrote, ‘Mr. Day differs from many philosophers in one remarkable particular, in being more benevolent in practice than in theory’.

Sean Canty

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