Mrs Beeton – not the cosy matriarch you’d expect

What does the name Mrs Beeton conjure up? A round, rosy-cheeked matriarch, hair in a bun and flour up to her elbows? Sorry to dispel the myth, but Isabella Beeton wrote her famous book of household managements at twenty-one, and died at twenty-eight of an infection following the birth of her fourth child. Rumour has it that she contracted syphilis from her husband on honeymoon and this led to a string of miscarriages and the death in infancy of two of her children. She certainly didn’t live a life of domestic bliss; her husband carried on philandering after they married. He seemed a pretty despicable character all round – after she died, he kept the news quiet, realising that the Mrs Beeton brand name was his most valuable possession. He continued to publish under her name, and later, broke and almost bankrupt, sold her name onto another publishing house.

Isabella Beeton was born in 1836 and her father died when she was just four. Following her mother’s second marriage, she became the eldest girl in a family of twenty-one children. To escape her fate as eternal nursemaid, she became engaged to Samuel Beeton, a London-based publisher of books and magazines. They moved to semi-detached suburbia, but housewifery bored her, and so she persuaded Samuel to let her write columns for one of his publications: the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine. She didn’t get off to a flying start – in her first recipe for Victoria Sponge she forgot to include eggs in the list of ingredients!

But the columns soon became popular and so Isabella collected them into what became The Book of Household Management. Most of it comprises the recipes for which it’s still famous, but its gems of advice covered household management, childcare, etiquette, entertaining and information for the Mistress, Housekeeper, Cook, Kitchen-Maid, Maid-of-all-Work, Laundry-Maid, Nurse and Nurse-Maid, Monthly Wet and Sick Nurses, etc. etc.—also Sanitary, Medical, & Legal Memoranda: with a History of the Origin, Properties, and Uses of all Things Connected with Home Life and Comfort. Compelling stuff, eh?

Some people have tried to argue that Mrs Beeton was something of a feminist. A working middle-class woman was certainly a pretty rare thing Victorian society. I’m not sure I’d agree, though. Her writings strengthened the view that ‘a woman’s place is in the home’, while the public domain belonged to the man. I think it’s fair to say we wouldn’t have been kindred spirits. Here’s a quote from the introduction of her book:

‘I have always thought that there is no more fruitful source of family discontent than a housewife’s badly-cooked dinners and untidy ways.’

And here’s what she says about the mistress of the house:

‘if she remains in bed till a late hour, then the servants, who, as we have observed, invariably acquire some of their mistress’s characteristics, are likely to become sluggards.’

So why have I chosen her? I guess because she embodies a different age and makes me glad I live in the time I do. And sometimes she just makes me smile. I love her first instruction on cooking chicken:

‘First, catch your chicken.’

The book’s a bit of an oddity when you look at it today. Her recipes weren’t new, nor were most of the ideas. It comes across as formal, instructive, a little condescending even. But people clearly didn’t think so at the time – it was one of a kind, and a huge bestseller. It shifted more than 60,000 copies in its first year of publication, and almost two million by 1868. Its format of recipes is still used today. So I salute you, Mrs Beeton. When most Victorian women faded into obscurity, you’re the ultimate household name.

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