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“How to Create the Perfect Wife”

"The Dying Negro" -- the first major anti-slavery poem in English -- was the talk of London in the summer of 1773. Although the bestselling pamphlet was published anonymously, a wealthy young political progressive named Thomas Day let it be known that he was the author. Over the next decade and a half, Day would become a familiar and fiery public voice on behalf of abolition and the independence of the American colonies, as well as an early campaigner against cruelty toward animals. He would also write a hugely popular children's novel, "The History of Sandford and Merton." But, as Wendy Moore observes in her transfixing new book on Day, in the year "The Dying Negro" was published, few readers "would have suspected that its chief author secretly maintained a teenage girl who was completely subordinate to his commands and whims."

The title of Moore's book, "How to Create the Perfect Wife," explains what Day was up to. From an early age -- sniffing at the revelry in that 18th-century party school, Oxford -- Day knew exactly how he intended to live. He planned to commit himself to "the unremitting practice of the severest virtue." He would adopt an austere existence in the country, thinking, reading, writing and doing good works, while receiving few visitors. The one thing he required to achieve this nirvana was a mate, and for that, too, he had something very particular in mind.

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