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The Secret Life of Mrs. Beeton

The Real Isabella Beeton

A biography, with recipes

'As with the commander of an army, or the leader of any enterprise, so it is with the mistress of a house.'

Isabella Mary Mayson, born in Cheapside, London on March 12, 1836, was the oldest of four children. Her father, Benjamin Mayson, died when she was young; her mother, Elizabeth Jerram, remarried Henry Dorling, a widower with four children of his own. The blended family lived in Epsom, Surrey. (Elizabeth and Henry would have thirteen more children together.) Isabella was educated in Heidelberg, Germany, where she honed her skills as a pianist.

While visiting London, she met Samuel Orchart Beeton, a rich and striking publisher of books and popular magazines. Samuel and Isabella were married in July of 1856 although Isabella's stepfather refused to attend the wedding; he didn't approve of the match.

The couple settled in Pinner (a northwest suburb of London) and nine months later Isabella gave birth to a boy. He lived just 3 perilous months. Over the next few years she suffered several miscarriages and stillbirths. A second child would die soon after birth. In her biography, The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton, Kathryn Hughes speculates "that the reason for this disastrous obstetric history might be syphilis, contracted from her husband."

But during their marriage, Isabella and Sam were a successful and prolific team. Between 1859 and 1861, Isabella wrote articles about cooking and domestic management for Samuel's publications, including a monthly column for The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine: an Illustrated Journal combing Practical Information, Instruction & Amusement.

In October of 1861, the supplements were collected and published as a single volume. The book's official and complete title was: The Book of Household Management Comprising information for the Mistress, Housekeeper, Cook, Kitchen-Maid, Butler, Footman, Coachman, Valet, Upper and Under House-Maids, Lady's-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, edited by Mrs. Isabella Beeton.

The most famous English domestic manual ever published, it was essentially a guide to running a Victorian household. But it was also a nineteenth century runaway success, selling more than 60,000 copies in its first year of publication, and almost two million by 1868.

In the preface, Isabella Beeton discusses the motivation behind the book:

What moved me, in the first instance, to attempt a work like this, was the discomfort and suffering which I had seen brought upon men and women by household mismanagement. I have always thought that there is no more fruitful source of family discontent than a housewife's badly cooked dinners and untidy ways. Men are now so well served out of doors -- at their clubs, well-ordered taverns, and dining-houses -- that, in order to compete with the attraction of these places, a mistress must be thoroughly acquainted with the theory and practice of cookery, as well as be perfectly conversant with all the other arts of making and keeping a comfortable home.

No feminist, Isabella embraced the traditional roles of the woman as queen of the domestic sphere and the man as king of the public sphere. She is unequivocal in maintaining that the home and its management are the woman's responsibility.

Kathryn Hughes, the biographer, points out in her introduction to a facsimile edition that Beeton had realized there were "an increasing number of women like her, members of the new urban, commercial middle classes, who urgently needed advice on how to run a home. Hiring and managing servants, dealing with tricky tradesmen, spotting a high fever in a child -- all these were skills which girls no longer learned automatically from their mothers. 'Mrs. Beeton' would step in to become a kind of universal mother."

When it was reissued in an Oxford World's Classic edition in March of 2000, Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management sold out in Central London book stores within weeks. Nicola Humble, editor of that edition, explains why:

Ultimately, Household Management is so much more than a cookery book. It tells a story of a culture caught between the old world and the new, poised between modernity and nostalgia. It tells of kitchens in which meat is still roasted on spits over open fires, but where many of the bottled sauces and condiments we take for granted today were already available. Its medical chapters describe the significance of vaccination while also offering advice on the use of leeches for bloodletting. The book offers markedly advanced advice on the bearing and rearing of children warning parents of the dangers of drunken or incompetent nurses, castigating the common practices of binding small babies tightly with wrappers and dosing children with alcohol or laudanum to get them to sleep, and calling for the invention of nappies without pins and elastic baby clothes.

Although the book contained hundreds of recipes and is also known as Mrs. Beeton's Cookbook, most of the recipes were not Isabella's originals. The book was meant to be a collection of useful information; Mrs. Beeton's strength was in creating an organizational structure for vast quantities of data, not in cooking. But Mrs. Beeton's was the first book to list ingredients at the start of the recipe, and to note recommended cooking times. Many recipes were accompanied by color engravings.

Isabella died at the age of 28 after giving birth to her fourth child in January of 1865. Her death is officially attributed to puerperal fever, an acute type of septicemia usually caused by an unsanitary environment. She was buried at West Norwood Cemetery in the London borough of Lambeth.

Samuel Beeton and subsequent publishers kept the news of Isabella's death quiet, and continued to publish updates to Household Management, as well as completely new books, under her name.

Some guidance and recipes from Mrs. Beeton

SUET CRUST, for Pies or Puddings.

1215. INGREDIENTS. -- To every lb. of flour allow 5 or 6 oz. of beef suet, 1/2 pint of water.

Mode. -- Free the suet from skin and shreds; chop it extremely fine, and rub it well into the flour; work the whole to a smooth paste with the above proportion of water; roll it out, and it is ready for use. This crust is quite rich enough for ordinary purposes, but when a better one is desired, use from 1/2 to 3/4 lb. of suet to every lb. of flour. Some cooks, for rich crusts, pound the suet in a mortar, with a small quantity of butter. It should then be laid on the paste in small pieces, the same as for puff-crust, and will be found exceedingly nice for hot tarts. 5 oz. of suet to every lb. of flour will make a very good crust; and even 1/4 lb. will answer very well for children, or where the crust is wanted very plain.

Average cost, 5d. per lb.


1577. INGREDIENTS. -- Pineapples; sugar to taste.

Mode. -- Pare and slice the fruit thinly, put it on dishes, and strew over it plenty of pounded sugar. Keep it in a hot closet, or very slow oven, 8 or 10 days, and turn the fruit every day until dry; then put the pieces of pine on tins, and place them in a quick oven for 10 minutes. Let them cool, and store them away in dry boxes, with paper between each layer.

Time. -- 8 to 10 days.

Seasonable. -- Foreign pines, in July and August.

BAKED APPLE DUMPLINGS (a Plain Family Dish).

1225. INGREDIENTS. -- 6 apples, 3/4 lb. of suet-crust No. 1215, sugar to taste.

Mode. -- Pare and take out the cores of the apples without dividing them, and make 1/2 lb. of suet-crust by recipe No. 1215; roll the apples in the crust, previously sweetening them with moist sugar, and taking care to join the paste nicely. When they are formed into round balls, put them on a tin, and bake them for about 1/2 hour, or longer should the apples be very large; arrange them pyramidically on a dish, and sift over them some pounded white sugar. These may be made richer by using one of the puff-pastes instead of suet.

Time. -- From 1/2 to 3/4 hour, or longer. Average cost, 1-1/2d. each.

Sufficient for 4 persons.

Seasonable from August to March, but flavourless after the end of January.


...1626. The eggs of different birds vary much in size and colour. Those of the ostrich are the largest: one laid in the menagerie in Paris weighed 2 lbs. 14 oz., held a pint, and was six inches deep: this is about the usual size of those brought from Africa. Travellers describe ostrich eggs as of an agreeable taste: they keep longer than hen's eggs. Drinking-cups are often made of the shell, which is very strong. The eggs of the turkey are almost as mild as those of the hen; the egg of the goose is large, but well-tasted. Duck's eggs have a rich flavour; the albumen is slightly transparent, or bluish, when set or coagulated by boiling, which requires less time than hen's eggs. Guinea-fowl eggs are smaller and more delicate than those of the hen. Eggs of wild fowl are generally coloured, often spotted; and the taste generally partakes somewhat of the flavour of the bird they belong to. Those of land birds that are eaten, as the plover, lapwing, ruff, &c., are in general much esteemed; but those of sea-fowl have, more or less, a strong fishy taste. The eggs of the turtle are very numerous: they consist of yolk only, without shell, and are delicious.


1648. INGREDIENTS. -- To every lb. of cheese allow 3 oz. of fresh butter.

Mode. -- To pound cheese is an economical way of using it, if it has become dry; it is exceedingly good spread on bread, and is the best way of eating it for those whose digestion is weak. Cut up the cheese into small pieces, and pound it smoothly in a mortar, adding butter in the above proportion. Press it down into a jar, cover with clarified butter, and it will keep for several days. The flavour may be very much increased by adding mixed mustard (about a teaspoonful to every lb.), or cayenne, or pounded mace. Curry-powder is also not unfrequently mixed with it.

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