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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
The Beast of Marriage
Thomas Day was rich but very ugly. He couldn’t dance. “Who will marry me?” said Thomas Day. He thrust his hands into his pocket and asked his friend Richard. Richard took out his snuff box, lit a pipe.“My sister will marry you,” said Richard. But Richard’s sister wouldn’t marry him. Not even for all of his money, she said. Or all of the money in England, she said. He was that ugly. He was that bad at dance. “What about Anna Seward?” said Thomas Day. But Anna Seward heard about this and married someone else.
Thomas Day went to the orphanage and adopted two girls. The girls had names but he didn’t like them. “From now on you will be Lucretia,” he said. “Sabrina,” he said. The girls were eleven and twelve years old. Thomas Day promised to make at least one of them into his perfect wife. He hired a boat and they all sailed to France.
But in France nobody had a good time. Thomas Day, it turned out, didn’t like French people. He didn’t like French roads. In a letter to Richard: “The women prefer their lapdogs to their children; the roads are full of holes.” The girls got smallpox. They got fevers. They got mucous and pustules. Their crying kept him up all night. When they recovered they went on another boat ride, this time just for pleasure. The boat flipped over in the Rhône.
Eight months it went on like this. Thomas Day dueled a French person. Thomas Day dueled a French person. Thomas Day dueled a French person. Thomas Day hated dueling as much as he hated French people. But in France what could he do? Whenever he went to the coffeehouse or the market there was always another French person insulting him in French. The girls went to all the duels: duels by the river, duels in the field, duels at dusk. They’d sit on the ground and pull up grass.
And what about the girls? Turned out that Lucretia wasn’t perfect wife material. “Perfectly stupid,” Thomas Day wrote to Richard. When Thomas Day came back to England he apprenticed her to a milliner in Ludgate Hill. Later she married a linen draper. Everyone agrees that she lived a very happy life.
Thomas Day and Sabrina moved to Lichfield. Thomas Day rented a big house in the country. He invited Richard over; invited lots of other people as well. There were hors d’oeuvres and a string quartet. But when the people wanted to dance Thomas Day wouldn’t let them. He took the bow from the violinist. No one was allowed to dance.
Everyone met Sabrina. They all agreed that she had long eyelashes for a thirteen year old and fine auburn hair that hung in ringlets on her neck. “I will teach her to become the perfect wife,” said Thomas Day. “Bravo,” said Richard. Then there was the toast.
But Sabrina wasn’t the perfect wife. She failed all of the tests. The pistol test, for example, where Thomas Day fired pistols at the girl and told her not to move. The hot wax test, which was just like the pistol test but, instead of shooting pistols, dripping hot wax. Richard asked Thomas Day why he was shooting guns at the girl. “Stoicism,” said Thomas Day. “My wife should be as fearless as the Roman heroines; she should be as intrepid as Spartan wives.” “Are you firing real bullets?” asked Richard. They looked at the girl, trembling and crying on the ground.
Then Thomas Day fell in love with another girl. She wasn’t a girl, technically, because she was the same age as Thomas Day. Her name was Honora Sneyd and she combined everything Thomas Day wanted in a woman. Fortitude of spirit, literary and scientific tastes, a disinterested desire to please. Thomas Day offered her his noble hand. She told Thomas Day that she’d think about it. Really, she’d think about it. Even though he was ugly. Even though he couldn’t dance. Meanwhile, Thomas Day sent Sabrina to boarding school in Warwickshire. She was very happy there. Very happy. She was the happiest girl to have ever been sent away to boarding school. Her letters to Thomas Day went like this: “I’m so happy. Happy. Happy. Happy. Happy.”
Honora Sneyd broke Thomas Day’s heart. All women eventually broke Thomas Day’s heart. Even his mother. She broke his heart by dying. He was one year old. Honora Sneyd broke Thomas Day’s heart because she could not love him. She tried, she said. Her heart, she said, could not be schooled into softer sentiments in his favor. Thomas Day made a list of things that could not be schooled. The list went:
Honora Sneyd broke Thomas Day’s heart two more times. The second time when she married Richard. The third when she died.
There were other girls who broke his heart. Elizabeth Sneyd, for example, who was Honora’s sister. She broke his heart by playing with it. Told Thomas Day that she could love him for his money, but only if he learned how to dance. But when he returned from Bath she changed her mind. She liked him better the other way. Before he could waltz, she said. Before he could dance minuets.
Later Thomas Day moved to London. He lived alone and wrote a poem about slavery and a book for children. Both were met by great success. He wrote letters to Sabrina at boarding school and, eventually, he wrote letters to Richard. Sabrina forgave him. He forgave Richard. In the letters everyone felt sorry about everything that had happened. At least they said they did.
And there were other things besides the girls. Like Thomas Day’s love for horses. He liked to talk about the gratitude, generosity, and sensibility of horses. Whenever he met a disobedient or unruly horse he blamed its behavior on the mistreatment it must have suffered at the hands of its owner. He died trying to break a new horse. He was never a very good horseman, and the horse threw him off its saddle and stepped on his head. At the funeral everyone agreed that it was just like him to try to break a horse without a whip or a horsebreaker. “A victim of his own uncommon systems,” said Anna Seward. Foolish, said everyone else, that he would shoot his guns at girls but that he tried breaking a horse with kindness instead.
Bryan Hurt lives in Los Angeles where he’s finishing his PhD in Literature and Creative Writing at USC. Among other things he’s working on a collection of fictionalized biographies of which this story is a part.