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Monday, May 5, 2014

The First Domestic Diva: Isabella Beeton

by Susanne Dietze
 
In addition to the Bible, one of the books of particular importance to our Victorian ancestors (or, to us writers, to  our Victorian heroines) was a guide to running a middle-class household known as Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management.
File:Bhm title.jpg
 
Other household guides existed at this time, and many followed, but Mrs. Beeton’s is arguably the best known. Begun in 1859 as a series of English magazine articles, Household Management was published complete at over 1,000 pages in 1861 and became an instant bestseller in the UK and beyond. Women found guidance in its pages on topics as varied as fashion, poisons, servant management, childcare, animal husbandry, and cooking (with a little bit of conversational observation and class snobbery thrown in, giving the modern reader a keener perspective of the Victorian view).

And boy, does it make interesting reading. Need help with legal memoranda questions? Searching for a recipe for anything from supper to furniture polish? Unsure what the valet does? Curious what vegetables are in season in August? Mrs. Beeton has answers.

One might think “Mrs. Beeton” was actually an army of mob-capped matrons with decades of household management experience betwixt them. Alas, no. Isabella Beeton was a housewife and mother who began writing the articles at the tender age of 22.
File:Isabella Beeton, by Maull & Polyblank.jpg
Isabella Beeton, 1860-65, Public Domain

Born in Cheapside, London to a dry-goods trader in 1836, Isabella Mayson was the eldest in a blended family of twenty-one children. No doubt, she gained experience caring for her siblings and helping out around the house. She received a lady’s education in Germany, and upon returning home, was reintroduced to a childhood neighbor, publisher Samuel Beeton. They were married in 1856 and settled in Epsom.

Their firstborn son died in 1857, and about the time another son followed in 1859, Isabella began translating French novels for serialization and writing domestic articles for her husband's magazines. The second son died the year Household Management was published. Within a few years, two more sons were born (thankfully, they lived to adulthood), but Isabella contracted puerperal fever after her fourth child’s birth, and she died at age 28—a sad postscript.

The book she left, however, is a true gem which gives the reader a peek into middle-class Victorian life.
What to do when an infant convulsed? (A hot bath.) What do you do with a mouse-round of beef? (Boil or stew it.) What to do in case of Prussic Acid poisoning? (A pump to the back, smelling-salts, and artificial breathing—I guess mouth-to-mouth has been around longer than I thought.)

Isabella Beeton caught some flack for plagiarism, however. She liberally and without embarrassment took recipes and passages from two previously published books by Eliza Acton and Alexis Soyer without giving them credit--although she tends to state when a recipe is actually hers. Also, she has a tendency to contradict herself, a symptom of borrowing from multiple sources without checking for consistency. Her notes on tomatoes are a prime example: in one place, she calls them a "wholesome fruit," and in another, she describes the juice as emitting "a vapour so powerful as to cause vertigo and vomiting."

My abridged version removes these sorts of inconsistencies and the amusement one gains from them. Alas.

Why was this book so popular, especially considering it lifted a good portion of the contents from other sources? At the time, the middle class in England was growing rapidly. Industrialization and urbanization created new jobs, new lifestyles (husbands no longer coming home for a main midday meal, for example), and the opportunity to hire servants.

Mrs. Beeton addresses the needs of the housewife in this changing era. Her recipes state how many persons are served, the approximate cost, and the seasonal period in which something is fresh (Boiled Bread Pudding is a thrifty choice, costing only a shilling and always being in season).

Many of the recipes and tidbits are too extravagant for her audience, such as Turtle Soup or Truffles in Champagne Sauce. (Perhaps even Maize, what we call Corn on the Cob, which she says is delicious but difficult to get.) Likewise, most of her readers would never hire a butler, much less variegated levels of nursery staff.

Nevertheless, Mrs. Beeton's influence is still felt. Versions of the book are still in print, and it was used by food economists on the Downton Abbey crew. For a  hundred years, this book was a money-maker for its publisher, and many consider it the most famous English cookbook ever published.
 

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 What’s your favorite cookbook?
 
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Susanne Dietze likes to cook, but is a terrible baker. You can visit her on her website, www.SusanneDietze.com.

 

15 comments:

  1. I pictured her as this very experience, older woman so it's surprising that she died so young.

    21 children in a family?yours mine and ours indeed (there's likely more of a yours mine, hers, theirs, and ours)

    during my youth, my mother used that red/white covered Betty Crocker cookbook. I have a newer cookbook that is my go-to book. It would be nice if I knew the publisher, huh? That said, I probably have almost a hundred cookbooks including those small paper bound niche books put out by cooperative extensions or companies. I think I have the cookbook from my mother's first blender, for instance.

    recipes aside, Mrs. Beeton's is prime research material!

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    1. I pictured her as a mob-capped older gal. just goes to show...!

      Nice cookbook collection, Deb! I love cookbooks, too. I have a lot, probably more than I need, but they're so fun. I have a Betty Crocker cookbook I got in college, and I still use it. Very handy! My favorite cookbooks are by Susan Branch. Oh! And I love Twelve Months of Monastery Soups. I use that one a LOT. It includes recipes for just about every vegetable you can grow in North America.

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    2. i love making soup so the 12 months of monastery soups cookbook sounds great! Will have to look for it!!

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  2. It's so sad that she died so young and experienced the losses of children. But my, what an interesting story. Thanks for sharing it, Susie.

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    1. It is sad, isn't it, Suzie? In our contemporary age, we take for granted that our children will grow into adults, but that wasn't always the case.

      Her story is pretty interesting. She was so well-educated and industrious.

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  3. Criminey! 21 children. I can't imagine having to deal with that many siblings. And count me in with the crowd that thought she's be a venerable old matron.

    Oh, and we have the red and white Betty Crocker cookbook too. It was a three ring binder and my mom used it all the time. When I got married she got me a "new" one. It wasn't in the binder, and it just isn't the same...

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    1. My Betty Crocker is a binder--what a bummer they don't publish it that way anymore! It stays open exactly where you want it to be.

      Twenty-one kids...How many are the Duggars up to now? Of course, they're not a blended family, but don't they have 19? I can't imagine.

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  4. What a fun post - she accomplished so much in such short time! My two favorite cookbooks are my old Fanny Farmer and my new Traeger cookbooks.

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    1. Karl, the Traeger cookbook has some awesome recipes, I'll give you that! Thanks for coming by.

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  5. My mother's cookbook was the 1961 Betty Crocker version, complete with instructions to "freshen your lipstick and hair" before your husband came home for dinner. How horrified I was to learn that the real-life version was trying to brush my teeth and COMB my hair at least once during the day before hubby came home (when our kids were small, anyway... now I don't really have an excuse.) :)

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    1. Oh Niki, I'd heard of that admonition in older cookbooks, but wow. I didn't know it was the 60's! I assure you I'm not wearing lipstick by 5 pm. Who knows what my hair looks like, LOL.

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  6. I have a facsimile of this book and although I've flipped through it as needed, I never realized the things you mentioned in this post, Susie. How interesting. I really enjoy the tidbits you bring to these posts. :)

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    1. Aw, thanks, Anita Mae. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

      This is a fascinating book, isn't it? So dense, too. I learn something new every time I pick it up.

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  7. My favorite cookbook? Considering I have a cookbook collection... let's see...
    - Quick & Thrifty Cooking (30 mins or less)
    - Purity Flour cookbook, 1920, 1950, 1974, etc
    - Company's Coming Muffins


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    1. I could use the Quick and Thrifty Cooking book!

      In addition to the other books I listed above, I enjoy my Trader Joe's cookbook, and all of my Christmas cookbooks. I have several, and I love them all. I keep them out during December with the other holiday books.

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