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"The Secret Life of Mrs. Beeton"

Masterpiece Classic

by Molly Wizenberg

I'm a little embarrassed to admit it, seeing as I'm supposed to know about these things, but until about this time last year, I had never heard of Mrs. Isabella Beeton, the woman considered by many to be "the most famous cookery writer in British history." My introduction to the esteemed Mrs. Beeton was a quiet, carnation pink one, a galley copy of Kathryn Hughes's The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton, published last spring by Knopf. I thumbed through it with great interest - just who was this "first domestic goddess," as the cover announced her - and happily added it to the stack of books on my bedside table. Sadly, a few months later, Mrs. Beeton and her biography fell prey to one of my rare bouts of household cleaning - a particularly rash and nasty one at that - and met a sad end in the recycling bin next to our stove. I've thought of the book several times since, cursing myself for having chucked it like that, and I've even gone looking for it, hoping my memory might be mistaken. But it's long gone for sure, out with the old newspapers and aluminum cans.

You can well imagine, then, how interested I was to hear that PBS would be airing Masterpiece Theatre's The Secret Life of Mrs. Beeton. The only trouble is that now, having watched it - and thoroughly enjoyed it - I'm only kicking myself harder. I could really go for a cup of hot tea and an afternoon on the couch with a blanket and bit more of Mrs. Beeton. It could just be that I have a cold, but I don't think so.

The program description hardly does justice to the film or to its protagonist, the young Isabella Beeton, married at twenty to the boyish Samuel Beeton, a publisher of books and popular magazines. "This cultural icon," the description reads, "was not the dumpy, crinolined matron Britons have been led to believe, but instead a sassy, feisty, and very talented journalist and editor." She was that and more. I was struck most by the sense that she was a woman caught between eras, between an old world that expected women to devote themselves entirely to children and homemaking, and a world of new, modern opportunities that piqued her ambition and intellect. Though she lived a century and a half ago, the issues and dichotomies with which she struggled are the very same ones that headline women's magazines today: how to balance a career with family and ambition with nurturing, how to keep a business solvent and a marriage vibrant, how to keep her wits about her in a world that asks her to be many women at once. In that sense, the tragic story of Isabella Beeton - and it is tragic - is more than just a biography of the "original domestic goddess," but also an historical snapshot and a testament to a woman who, against odds and advice, chose to do things differently.

And speaking of which, I was interested to learn that Mrs. Beeton was the first to write recipes in the format we use today, with exact measurements and cooking times and "language that is plain, practical, and to the point." I have heard here and there that Fannie Farmer, author in 1896 of The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, was the mother of the modern recipe, but apparently Mrs. Beeton, with her 1861 Beeton's Book of Household Management, beat her to it on at least a few points. I'm starting to wonder if my kitchen bookshelf might be incomplete without a copy.

Lastly, I should also mention that the film is gorgeous - full of creaky old floorboards, rosy cheeks, candlelight, parasols and bonnets and lace. The role of Isabella is ably played by Anna Madeley, who is as graceful and engaging as can be. When she turns to the camera and speaks directly into it - as though to a girlfriend, a little cheeky - it's not hard to be charmed. JJ Field, who plays Sam Beeton, strikes me as a cross between Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, which, as you might imagine, is a very good thing. If you're the type who sighs happily at the sound of a clipped British accent, you will be immeasurably pleased. The whole thing made me want to hop out and buy a corset, or teach myself to properly truss a chicken, or maybe just curl up on the couch and wish for another installment.

Comments

I have a copy of Mrs. Beeton's Family Cookery, which is in use frequently in my house. This one was printed in 1962. Originally from England, I was brought up with Mrs. Beeton's cookbook and house hold hints. Although the recipes are printed in the English manner of pounds and ounces, I have a scale which helps. My family has grown up eating a lot of things I made using her recipes. I though this might be of interest to those of you who enjoyed the Secret Life of Mrs. Beeton as much as I did.

I also had a Mrs Beeton's Cookery book over 40 years ago as a young wife in England, so did my mother! No longer, alas. Enjoyed the play very much and would love to know more about her family after her death which was just hinted at at the end. Haven't read the biography unfortunately.

All that Ms. Wizenburg says is true, but the show was a downer nonetheless. The production was first rate, but the subject wasn't worthy of 'Masterpiece Theatre.' 'Bleak House' was less bleak.

I have a copy of Mrs, Beeton's Cookery and Household Management, "fifth empression" 1963, 1344 pgs. I saw it at Half Price Books some years ago and just had to have it. There are 411 pages of useful information on conducting yourself properly - 2 pages on meeting royalty - and running a household. The rest is devoted to cookery. I'd love to see an original copy as this is updated so we could use it today.

I ran off to the kitchen and looked for something to cook or bake, and then cried. I didn't realize this Mrs. Beeton was a real person...much better than Betty Crocker. Three and 1/4 sticks of butter up!

I thoroughly enjoyed the movie and would like to know more about the brief but vibrant life lead by Mrs. Beeton. Is it true she died from complications of childbirth and syphlis?

Did you know her book was on Project Gutenberg as a free ebook? Just in case you are too impatient to find your own paper copy...
http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/10136

Project Gutenberg also has the needlework book.

My first introduction to "Mrs. Beeton's" was through the opulent production of Upstairs, Downstairs. I seem to remember Mrs. Bridges often referring to the all-knowing Beeton. Although in high school at the time, I also seem to remember Alistair Cooke doing an essay on Mrs. Beeton after one of the episodes. I have been a fan ever since.

So nice to have the follow-up now.

My favorite part of the film is where
Mrs. Beeton cries desperately because after seven years she has no children, no house, a difficult relationship with her husband, money troubles, but she has a book. She wrote a book. Her creative effort has endured, and so maybe it was not necessary to cry about this after all.

I thoroughly enjoyed "The Secret Life of Mrs. Beeton", I was so intrigued that as soon as I came home from school today, I looked up information about Isabella Beeton.

Unfortunately, I missed this =(
Can someone tell me if its going to be shown again? I cannot find it anywhere.

When will WNED be rebroadcasting this drama? Unfortunately, I missed its initial airing in May.

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