Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Day, Thomas
DAY, THOMAS (1748–1789), author of ‘Sandford and Merton,’ was born 22 June 1748 in Wellclose Square, London. His father was collector of customs in the port of London, and had an estate of 1,200l. a year at Bear Hill, near Wargrave, Berkshire. He died suddenly in July 1749, leaving the estate to his son, with a jointure of 300l. a year to his widow, Jane, daughter of Samuel Bonham. Mrs. Day removed to Stoke Newington after his death. In 1755 she married Thomas Phillips of the custom-house. The stepfather was a troublesome busybody, and behaved unkindly to Day. The mother was affectionate and took great pains with her son's education, and especially with his physical training. After her second marriage she settled at Bear Hill, when the boy was left at a school in Stoke Newington till he could enter the Charterhouse. Here he already showed character, giving away his pocket-money to the poor, and being distinguished for his kindness to animals. He was a good boxer, and fought William Seward of the ‘Anecdotes,’ when, on finding that his antagonist had no chance, he immediately shook hands. From the Charterhouse Day went (in his sixteenth year) to Corpus Christi College, Oxford. He resided three years, lived sparingly, drank water, and studied philosophy, but left without a degree. He became intimate with Sir William Jones, then at University College, and with James Bicknell, afterwards a barrister. During an Oxford vacation he formed an intimacy with Richard Lovell Edgeworth [q. v.], who had also been at Corpus, and was now settled at Hare Hatch, near Bear Hill. The two friends had daily discussions upon philosophical points. Rousseau's ‘Nouvelle Héloïse,’ ‘Contrat Social,’ and ‘Émile’ appeared in 1761–2, and were now exciting the intellects of Europe. Day became an ardent adherent of the school which denounced corruption and endeavoured to return to the simplicity of nature. He calls Rousseau ‘the first of humankind,’ and his friend Edgeworth brought up his own eldest son upon the principles expounded in ‘Émile.’ On 12 Feb. 1765 Day was admitted a student of the Middle Temple. He studied law and was called to the bar 14 May 1775, but never sought practice. ‘Day,’ said Jones one day, ‘kill that spider!’ ‘No,’ said Day, ‘I don't know that I have a right. Suppose that a superior being said to a companion, “Kill that lawyer,” how should you like it? And a lawyer is more noxious to most people than a spider.’ Day was fond of walking tours, in which he made friends with people of all classes.
Upon coming of age, he raised his mother's allowance to 400l. and settled the sum upon her and his stepfather for their lives. He had already suffered a disappointment in love. He had travelled in the west of England to look for a wife, and had addressed some verses to a lady whom he met at Shaftesbury, suggesting, without result, that she should live unnoticed with him ‘sequestered in some secret grove.’ Another poem commemorates an attachment to the sister of his friend Edgeworth, formed during a visit to Ireland in 1768. They discovered by the next winter that a fine lady would not suit a rough philosopher, who objected on principle to combing his hair, though he was fond of washing. He therefore resolved to take measures for securing a wife upon philosophical principles. He went with his friend Bicknell to an orphan asylum at Shrewsbury, and chose a flaxen-haired beauty of twelve, whom he called Sabrina Sidney (the last name from Algernon Sidney). From the Foundling Hospital in London he selected a brunette whom he called Lucretia. He undertook to choose one of these girls for his wife, or to give her a marriage portion if he changed his mind, and to apprentice the other and maintain her till she married or became independent. They were to be educated on the severest principles to acquire strength of mind and body. He went to Avignon with them, where (according to Miss Seward) they gave him much trouble by their tempers and ignorance of the language. They quarrelled; he nursed them through the small-pox and saved their lives in a boat accident on the Rhône. A letter, however, from Day himself at Avignon to Edgeworth (R. L. Edgeworth, i. 220), giving a very favourable account of their temper and his contentment with the experiment, throws a doubt upon these stories. On his return Lucretia, being ‘invincibly stupid,’ was placed with a milliner, where she did well and ultimately married a ‘respectable linendraper.’ He left Sabrina with Bicknell's mother while he settled his affairs at home, and in the spring of 1770 brought her (then aged thirteen) with him to Lichfield. Edgeworth had there introduced him to the circle of which Erasmus Darwin [q. v.] was the great literary light.
He took a house at Stow Hill, near Lichfield, and tried experiments upon Sabrina. As she screamed when he fired pistols (only loaded with imaginary ball) at her petticoats, and started when he dropped melted sealing wax on her arms, he judged her to fall below the right standard of stoicism. She betrayed secrets meant to test her reticence, and cared little for books or science. These stories again rest upon the very doubtful authority of Miss Seward. After a year Day placed Sabrina in a boarding school at Sutton-Coldfield, for the sensible reason, according to Edgeworth, that her age made it undesirable that she should continue to live with him ‘without a protectress’ (Edgeworth, i. 240). Day now became attentive to Honora Sneyd, the object of Major André's early attachment. Honora would not consent to his proposed plan of complete seclusion, and he turned to her sister Elizabeth. Both ladies objected to the want of refinement due to his philosophical prejudice against the corruptions of a luxurious society. Day's love induced him to compromise with his principles, and he went to Paris with Edgeworth, where they saw Rousseau. They passed the winter at Lyons, where Day studied dancing and fencing to fit himself for Elizabeth Sneyd. Edgeworth describes him reading a book with his legs screwed up between two boards in the vain hope of straightening them. It is said that the poor of Lyons had received so much from him that when he left they held a meeting and requested him to leave money to supply their wants during his absence. He returned to Lichfield with his new accomplishments, but Elizabeth Sneyd unkindly declared that she preferred the ‘blackguard’ (as he had called himself before) to the ‘fine gentleman.’ Sabrina had now developed into a charming young lady, and Day again turned to her, until some trifling deviation from his system convinced him that she wanted strength of mind (Edgeworth, i. 334). She afterwards lived with a lady in the country, retained her respect for Day, and finally, with his reluctant consent, married Bicknell, then a fairly prosperous barrister. Day paid the promised portion of 500l., and on Bicknell's death three years later allowed the widow 30l. a year. She became the housekeeper of Dr. Charles Burney, the Greek scholar [q. v.] Honora and Elizabeth Sneyd became the second and third wives of his friend Edgeworth. Day now took up his residence in London. He made some continental tours, and he became an author. His first publication was ‘The Dying Negro,’ a poem of which Bicknell had suggested the plan. The third edition was dedicated to Rousseau, and denounces the inconsistency of the American patriots in maintaining slavery. Two later poems are devoted to a denunciation of the American war. Day advocated the same principles in prose, denouncing American slavery in some ‘Reflections on the Present State of England and the Independence of America.’ Meanwhile he had been attracted by a Miss Esther Milnes of Wakefield, who was known to his friends, especially to Dr. Small, one of the Lichfield set, and was a woman of considerable culture, who had herself written juvenile poems, and appreciated Day's writings. He was deterred from offering himself by her possession of a fortune and his consequent doubt of her willingness to submit to his conditions. She loved him, however, devotedly; Small encouraged him to come forward, and after two years they came to an understanding. She was to live as ascetically as he wished. At his desire her fortune was placed beyond his control, that she might retreat from the experiment if it proved too painful, and they were married at Bath 7 Aug. 1778.
They passed the winter at Hampstead, where Edgeworth found Mrs. Day exemplifying her husband's principles by walking upon the heath in the snow, and so successfully curing her supposed delicacy. In 1779 Day bought a house at Abridge in Essex. Mrs. Day was allowed no servants, and had to give up her harpsichord. ‘We have no right to luxuries,’ said Day, ‘while the poor want bread.’ He studied architecture, and astonished the builder by having a wall made first and windows knocked out afterwards. He took an ardent part in the politics of the day, denouncing sinecures, and delivering addresses which were published by the Constitutional Society. He declined, however, to put himself forward for a seat in parliament, preferring to take Cincinnatus for his model. The reformers failed, the society dissolved, and Day gave up politics. In 1781 the Days left Abridge, and settled at Anningsley, near Ottershaw in Surrey, in a region of wide open heaths. Here he took up farming energetically, lived simply without a carriage, saw no society, and spent his income upon improving his estate. He lost money by his farm, but was consoled by the employment given to the poor. He declined invitations to take part in political agitation, preferring his schemes of moral and social reform, and approving of Pitt's administration. He studied mechanics, chemistry, and physic, became a good lawyer, and wrote ‘Sandford and Merton’ to set forth his ideal of manliness. It was originally meant for a short story, to be inserted in the Edgeworths' ‘Harry and Lucy.’ Both he and his wife devoted themselves to the care of the labourers, often asking them to his house and giving them religious instruction. He had become convinced of the mischief of thoughtless generosity, and affected to be less charitable than he really was. His letters (R. L. Edgeworth, ii. 70–84) show strong sense upon this question. His seclusion gave him the reputation of a cynical misanthrope; but he gave away nearly his whole fortune (Seward, Letters, ii. 330). The farmers generally disliked him, but Samuel Cobbett, a farmer near Chobham, possessed of unusual cultivation as well as practical knowledge, became his special friend. His stepfather died in 1782, and his mother still occupied the house at Bear Hill, where he often visited her. On 28 Sept. 1789 he started to see her and his wife, then at Bear Hill, on an unbroken colt, in conformity with one of his pet theories, that kindness would control any animal. The colt shied near Wargrave, and threw Day upon his head. He died in an hour, and was buried at Wargrave. His wife died two years afterwards of a broken heart, and was buried by his side.
Edgeworth calls Day the ‘most virtuous human being’ he had ever known. His friend and biographer Keir speaks with equal warmth. His amusing eccentricities were indeed only the symptom of a real nobility of character, too deeply in earnest to submit to the ordinary compromises of society. ‘Sandford and Merton’ is still among the best children's books in the language, in spite of all its quaint didacticism, because it succeeds in forcibly expressing his high sense of manliness, independence, and sterling qualities of character. The influence of Rousseau's ‘Émile’ is sufficiently obvious, but is modified by Day's sturdy British morality.
Wright of Derby painted a full-length portrait of Day, meditating in a thunderstorm, leaning against a column inscribed with Hampden's name, and reading one of the patriot's orations by a flash of lightning, which ‘plays in his hair’ (Seward, Darwin, 20). An engraving, without the accessories, is in Edgeworth's ‘Memoirs’ (i. 345).
Day's books are: 1. ‘The Dying Negro,’ 1773. 2. ‘The Devoted Legions,’ 1776. 3. ‘The Desolation of America,’ 1777. 4. Two speeches at meetings of the counties of Essex and Cambridge, on 25 March and 25 April 1780, published by the Society for Constitutional Information. 5. ‘Reflections on the Present State of England and the Independence of America,’ 1782. 6. ‘Letters of Marius; or Reflections upon the Peace, the East India Bill, and the Present Crisis,’ 1784. 7. ‘Fragments of Original Letters on the Slavery of the Negroes’ (written in 1776), 1784. 8. ‘Dialogue between a Justice of the Peace and a Farmer,’ 1785. The last four were also issued as four tracts, 1785. 9. ‘Letter to Arthur Young on the Bill to prevent the Exportation of Wool,’ 1788. 10. ‘History of Sandford and Merton,’ vol. i. 1783, vol. ii. 1787, vol. iii. 1789. 11. ‘History of Little Jack,’ in Stockdale's ‘Children's Miscellany,’ and separately in 1788. An anonymous ‘Ode for the New Year,’ 1776, appears also to be Day's.
‘Select Miscellaneous Productions of Mrs. Day and Thomas Day in verse and prose, edited by Thomas Lowndes,’ 1805, contains Mrs. Day's juvenile poetry, and a few letters and short pieces, to which Lowndes added some of his own, solely, as he is careful to say, to ‘increase the size of the work.’[Account of Life and Writings of Thomas Day, by James Keir, 1791; Anna Seward's Erasmus Darwin (1804), 17–54; Memoirs of R. L. Edgeworth, 1821; Blackman's Life of Day, 1862.]