History: Deconstructing Mrs Beeton and Her Book of Domestic Management

March 6, 2017 in General

Nineteenth century icon of domesticity Mrs Isabella Beeton (1836-1864) is usually perceived as a middle-aged matron with decades of kitchen experience. However, she was just 21 when she started writing her pivotal Beeton’s Book of Household Management in 1859, and had only been managing her home for a single year. Isabella Beeton was not an affluent housewife presiding over a generously endowed and well-run home, but in fact she came from a lower-middle class background, battling everything from poverty to disease. And far from being middle-aged, she died at the age of just twenty eight.

Here are some of her observations about domestic existence, tested against her actual circumstances:

(1) Rise early: Isabella and her husband Sam got up at about 6am, so that they could catch the early train from Pinner into London, where Sam, a publisher, had his base of operations. The other commuters disliked having Isabella present since it meant they couldn’t utter profanities or smoke. However, due to his schedule, Sam often missed the last 
train back and once walked thirteen miles back to Pinner. Isabella usually left his dinner ready for him to reheat on the stove, having long since gone to bed.

(2) Cold or tepid baths each morning are good for you: When Sam and Isabella Beeton moved into their new semi-detached house in Pinner in 1856, there was no bath. Contemporary Victorian opinion regarded baths with running water as a potentially dangerous innovation, so most people used a wash basin in their bedroom. However, Isabella was adamant that she wanted a bath and so an extra cistern had to be installed on the first floor to accommodate her innovation tastes. As for the coldness angle, descendants of Mrs Beeton were told that the chief reason that two of her children died was that too many cold baths were undertaken.

(3) Be hesitant about forming friendships with neighbours: Sociability was viewed as a Victorian middle-class asset. When a young housewife moved into a new neighbourhood, she should make a courtesy call on her neighbours. She should not regularly venture out, but stay “at home” several times a week. In return, her neighbours or herself should not bring their preschool children or their dog to visit with them. Moreover, running down the reputation of their respective husbands were strictly forbidden. Yet for all this, Isabella was not very sociable herself- there’s no evidence that she ever made a morning call. Given that she was the eldest girl in a huge family of twenty-one siblings, most of her most significant social networks were within her own vast clan. Her best friends were her sisters Bessie and Esther, even after her marriage. The sisters blamed her husband Sam for her early death at 28, declaring that he’d exhausted her through overwork on her Book of Household Management

(4) Hospitality is a virtue, as are dinner parties: In fact, Isabella Beeton loathed dinner parties. She described them as “these formal feeds which I abhor”. She preferred dancing, stating that “a good dance is much more in my line.” Before her marriage, she loved nothing better than when the carpet was rolled back in her parents’ Epsom house and the music began. Mrs Beeton never gave any dinner parties because she lacked the resources to do so. In 1860, when they were 24 and 29, Isabella and Sam left their Pinner household , due to the cost of their rent. They camped out in two rooms above Sam’s office in the Strand, hardly an area to invite visitors.

(5) Charity is a most becoming virtue: Commendably, Isabella did indeed have a social conscience. When London shivered during the arduous winter of 1858 she cooked up each week nine gallons of “Useful Soup for Benevolent Purposes” which were given at her back door to local needy families. The soup’s ingredients included a few bones, an ox cheek, salt and an ounce of black pepper, but it is not recorded what the local reaction was to this generosity of spirit.

6. Keep careful domestic accounts: This was definitely one case in which the ideals did not match the reality of her own circumstances. However, that was largely the fault of her husband, as history records that Sam Beeton was a mediocre businessman, unable to control his own finances. As Isabella became weaker before her death in 1865, he faced bankruptcy. By contrast, Isabella was frugal with her finances and indeed did keep rigorous accounts. In a diary from 1860, she itemised every amount of money spent on food before crossing through each item, as though she reviewed expenditure. If she had not died prematurely she might even have exercised this prudence and frugality on her husband’s ailing business. However, after her death, Sam Beeton went bankrupt in 1866. Therefore, he had to sell the highly profitable Book of Household Management to another company which primarily benefited from its immense profits over the next one and a half centuries.

7. Be an excellent cook: Isabella had been only cooking for her family and herself for just a year when she first started compiling the two thousand recipes that appear in the Book of Household Management. Although the Soup for Benevolent Purposes (see above) was an exception to this rule, all her recipes seem to have originated from earlier cookery books, and some of them dated back to the seventeenth century. Her primary innovation was revolutionising the recipes layout, by listing all the ingredients at the start and giving exact cooking times for the meals. However, today, copyright and intellectual property might have been a problem for her.

8. Manage your domestic staff expertly: While she gave detailed instruction to her readers about how to deal with a large household of servants from the butler and the cook down to the scullery maid and the stable lad, Isabella Beeton never employed more than two domestic staff, a single maid-of-all-work and a nursemaid. Footmen and cooks were only for affluent individuals, who probably didn’t need to thumb through her book for tips on expert domestic staff management.

9. Care for your children well: Sadly, in this instance, such a laudable goal fell short of her own tragic domestic circumstances. Isabella Beeton returned from her 1856 honeymoon pregnant. As often occurred before the emergence of consistent surgical hygiene, childhood infection carried off her first child, a baby boy who died at just three months old. In 1857, she experienced repeated miscarriages, before she had her second child in 1859. This child died in 1862, aged three. Sam had slept with a prostitute before he married, and had passed on syphilis to his wife as a consequence. It was only after 1861, five years from her initial infection that Isabella was able to give birth to healthy children. Her third child followed in 1863 and lived until the 1940s, well into his eighties. In February 1865 Isabella gave birth for the last time. The boy was healthy, but several hours later, Isabella became weakened and ill. Tragically, she had contracted puerperal fever from the doctor who had delivered her baby, who had not washed his hands in chloride of lime beforehand. She passed away a week later, dying an agonising and unneccessary death.

10. Be a good and well-prepared domestic nurse if necessary: Perhaps due to his syphilis, Sam Beeton experienced continuing ill-health throughout his short life. Her died twelve years after his wife. aged forty six, in 1877. When Sam discussed his condition with friends , it was clear that he suffered from venereal disease picked up from a prostitute. After Isabella died in 1865 he became more obviously afflicted with the symptoms of tertiary syphilis- mania, recklessness and lack of sexual decorum. He became a publisher of Victorian pornography, as well as putting out publications that insulted Queen Victoria and the royal family. . He also embarked on a marathon of futile court cases which drained what little financial resources that he still had left. It is perhaps lucky that Mrs Beeton was long dead, as she never encountered him in such situations, nor found her nursing skills put to what would have been a most arduous test.

Recommended:

Kathryn Hughes: The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton: London: Fourth Estate: 2006.

Kathryn Hughes: “The secret life of Mrs Beeton”: BBC History: March 2017: http://www.historyextra.com/article/bbc-history-magazine/secret-life-mrs-beeton

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