The Mistress of the House

Mrs Beeton.

A fascinating woman – the Victorian cook who wrote a book about Household Management. I found a copy of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management in an antique shop and decided to buy it, and then started to find out more about her. I found more books – online, at car boot sales, in second hand bookshops.

I imagined her to be quite middle-aged, so it’s totally appropriate to write about her in a blog called middleagedfreeandsingle.com.

Except – she wasn’t middle-aged; she wasn’t a cook; and she didn’t write the Book of Household Management.

She was the eldest girl of a family of 21 (basically her mother had a lot of children, was widowed, married a widower who already had a lot of children, then they had a lot more children). She lived for a while in the Grandstand at Epsom, like you do.

She married Samuel Beeton, who was a journalist. He published the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, one of the first women’s magazines that was actually affordable for most women.

And she worked with him, as fashion editor and cookery editor. It was the late 1850s, and she was in her early 20s.

It was her idea to include pictures in the fashion column – prior to that, it had been text only! She had the latest French fashion plates brought over from France, and the magazines included a paper pattern so that readers could make their own.

Her cookery column was extremely successful, and the Beetons decided to publish the recipes separately from the magazine, together with advice on how to run a household. It was published as a book for the first time in 1861, when Isabella Beeton was 24.

So Mrs Beeton was in fact a journalist, not a cook. She travelled in to London every day on the train – one of the first commuters. She was a working mother. She described herself as the ‘editress’ of Household Management, not the author – she wrote some sections, but it was mostly compiled from recipes sent in by readers of the magazine, and she went to experts for the writing of other sections.

Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management was a publishing sensation, and was reprinted and edited time after time. It was routinely given as a wedding present, and was taken all over the Empire. It’s still in print today. It was innovative in two ways –

  • She was one of the first people to give quantities and cooking times in a recipe. Mrs B also included, for each recipe, an idea of cost, how many it would serve, and what season the ingredients could be found in. She didn’t assume that her readers knew any of this – and her readers loved her for it.
  • There was a section on the law. This was the first time a woman had been able to access information about her rights without having to ask a lawyer or her husband. Married women had no separate legal existence from their husbands at this period, which makes the inclusion of this section even more remarkable. A woman could read a recipe book – a perfectly acceptable book for a woman to read – but in actual fact be reading about her rights – ‘…in criminal cases she can neither be a witness for or against her husband. The case of assault by him upon her forms an exception to this rule.’ And ‘…a wife deserted by her husband may apply to a magistrate for an order to protect her lawful earnings acquired by her after such desertion…’ Quite subversive.

The Book of Household Management also took women, and the work they did in the home, seriously. It acknowledged that running a household well required intelligence, skill, and the ability to manage staff. It also acknowledged that this work was important. The first paragraph of the first edition starts like this –

As with the Commander of an Army, or the leader of any enterprise, so is it with the mistress of a house. Her spirit will be seen through the whole establishment; and just in proportion as she performs her duties intelligently and thoroughly, so will her domestics follow in her path. Of all those acquirements, which more particularly belong to the feminine character, there are none which take a higher rank, in our estimation, than such as enter into a knowledge of household duties; for on these are perpetually dependent the happiness, comfort, and well-being of a family.

Mrs Beeton died, aged 28, in 1865, just four years after the first edition of her book had been published. She died of puerperal fever following childbirth – but Kathryn Hughes in her book ‘The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton’ has suggested that she may also have been suffering from syphilis.

The books themselves are fascinating. They have been edited and re-edited and occasionally entirely re-written to take account of changing times, to the point where they would be totally unrecognisable to young Isabella – but her name is still out there.

She always had one eye on economy – a woman after my own heart!!

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