"The Secret Life of Mrs. Beeton"
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.