Rollover Information
The Secret Life of Mrs. Beeton

Story Synopsis

Plot Revealed Below!

Isabella Beeton speaks to us from beyond the grave. She has died at the age of 28 and is looking on at her burial. Her husband, she says, "didn't always look so haggard."

We flash back to 1854. Isabella has returned to England from boarding school in Germany where she has become a skilled pianist. Her widowed mother has remarried; the blended family is large and continuing to grow. Isabella's stepfather runs the racecourse at Epsom Downs.

Isabella meets Samuel Beeton, a young and energetic publishing entrepreneur, and the two eventually marry although Bella's stepfather, Mr. Dorling, objects to the match.

The Beetons set up housekeeping in Pinner, a suburb northwest of London, but once settled in, Isabella is bored. She begins to help Sam with his publications. She writes a monthly column for his periodical The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine.

The Beeton's first child is born. The family go to Suffolk to rest and visit with Isabella's mother's friend, Henrietta. While there the child falls ill and he eventually dies.

Isabella returns to work. She is compiling her columns and extensive new material in a collection of domestic information for the housewife. She is guided by the analogy of the housewife as commander of an army. She devises a new, more logical system for recipes and suggests recommended cooking times.

Isabella and Sam have a brief and unsettling encounter with a woman on the street. The woman seems to recognize Sam.

Isabella and her maid Anne continue to test recipes of all kinds.

Isabella's and Sam's second child is born -- but lives only a few hours.

Isabella continues to work on her book, researching everything from scratch.

Eventually, when another son is born, the doctor has to remind Sam of his outstanding bills.

The book -- Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management -- is finally completed and is greeted with good reviews. Sam and Isabella begin to plan their next projects. Isabella has an idea for a new magazine -- a window into high society -- which they name The Queen, the Ladies' Newspaper.

Sam begins to work late more often and is drinking frequently. Bella suspects another woman. Sam admits to serious financial problems and Bella is furious to have been deceived. They embark on a period of frugality and economy. The Queen is auctioned off. The Beetons leave Pinner and move into rooms above the publishing offices. Staff, including Fred Greenwood, is let go.

Isabella's mother and stepfather visit; Isabella's mother is pregnant at age 47 with her 17th child. They are distressed to see the Beeton's reduced living situation and offer to provide Isabella with a house near their own in Surrey. Isabella refuses.

Little Sammy falls ill and dies on New Year's Eve.

So, as Isabella points out, after seven years of marriage she and Sam have "no house, no garden, no children, no money... just a book."

Sam is drinking a lot and the marriage lurches from crisis to crisis. Isabella again encounters the mystery woman in the streets; she seems to be sick.

Sam and Isabella set out with a new focus for The Englishwoman's Domestic -- fashion. They journey to Paris, with the plan of offering patterns in the magazine for original gowns.

Another child is born.

Sam is moody and sick and Bella asks the doctor to level with her. The doctor says it is likely bronchitis, and suggests the family leave London for awhile. They rent a home in Kent.

A friendly neighbor, Myra Brown, learns that Isabella is the Mrs. Beeton; she is surprised by her youth.

Fred Greenwood, now editing the Cornhill magazine, pays a visit. Sam and Isabella have a new project in the works, a weekly magazine called The Young Englishwoman: A magazine of fiction, fashion, music, etc.

Another child is born, another boy.

Isabella is feverish. She has nightmares of Sam with another woman, the woman she has encountered in the streets of London. The doctor assures her she has a mild infection as a result of childbirth, but the possibility of syphilis crosses her mind.

Isabella dies. In an afterward, she explains that her mother and stepfather blamed Sam for her death. The Browns moved in with the grieving Sam and helped to raise the Beeton's two young sons. Sam declined as well -- physically and financially -- and he died twelve years after Isabella.

WGBH Logo PBS logo


Masterpiece Theatre The Secret Life of Mrs. Beeton

Masterpiece is sponsored by: