Thomas Day was so deeply influenced by Rousseau’s theories of natural education that he conducted living experiments with adopted children. Although that sounds somewhat grotesque, the “experiments” were motivated by very human feelings as well as philosophical curiosity. Day longed for a wife with natural sensibilities, so he adopted two girls, aged eleven and twelve, and brought them up in ways calculated to develop their instincts and natural personalities. The most agreeable of the two was to become his wife. Day subjected the girls to ridiculous tests—such as dropping hot sealing wax on their bare arms in order to teach them to be fearless and tough. Day, along with Rousseau, believed that if children experienced the conditions found in “the noble state of nature”—such as courage, endurance, compassion, and honesty—while being protected from the corrupting influence of social institutions, they would develop sense as well as sensibility. Neither of the girls became Day’s wife. Some traits, Day discovered, were simply uneducable.
The theory that THE HISTORY OF SANDFORD AND MERTON attempted to promulgate was that of education by example rather than coercion: The same theme had been presented in Rousseau’s EMILE, which had been published in France twenty-one years earlier. In Day’s novel, the reader also finds the belief that a proximity to nature is one of the ingredients of a healthy personality. In this fiction Day was able to control all the variables, and indeed, Tommy Merton does develop all the natural instincts that his effeminate and undisciplined home had almost stifled completely. With Harry Sandford’s example, as a person and doer of good and sensible deeds, Tommy gradually becomes a paragon of all the virtues Day had hoped his own wards—or at least one of them—might realize in her own person.
Harry’s primary virtue is a kind of worldly sincerity, and Mr. Merton’s hopes for Tommy are realized when his own son develops into the same straight-thinking as well as generous lad represented by Harry Sandford. It is here that Rousseau’s ideas about the natural man coincide with a traditionally English appreciation of the straightforward manliness of the common English yeoman.