I knew that C.S. Lewis and I had more in common than our Christianity when he said, "You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me." Welcome to a celebration of faith, tea, and the written word. I'm always engaged in a book, and whether it's one I'm reading or one of the inspirational historical romances I write, there's always a cup of tea close by. Join me in a cup as we chat about faith, our favorite books and the exciting places our reading and writing adventures take us.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The First Domestic Diva: Isabella Beeton

In addition to the Bible, one of the books of particular importance to our Victorian ancestors (or, to us writers, to our Victorian heroines) was a guide to running a middle-class household known as Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management.
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Other household guides existed at this time, and many followed, but Mrs. Beeton’s is arguably the best known. Begun in 1859 as a series of English magazine articles, Household Management was published complete at over 1,000 pages in 1861 and became an instant bestseller in the UK and beyond. Women found guidance in its pages, on topics as varied as fashion, poisons, servant management, childcare, animal husbandry, and cooking (with a little bit of heavier topics and conversational observation thrown in, giving the modern reader a keener perspective of the Victorian view).

And boy, does it make interesting reading. Need help with legal memoranda questions? Searching for a recipe for anything from supper to furniture polish? Unsure what the valet does? Curious what vegetables are in season in August? Mrs. Beeton has answers.

One might think “Mrs. Beeton” was actually an army of mob-capped matrons with decades of household management experience betwixt them. However, Isabella Beeton was a housewife and mother who began writing the articles at the tender age of 22.

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Isabella Beeton, 1860-65, Public Domain

Born in Cheapside, London to a dry-goods trader in 1836, Isabella Mayson was the eldest in a blended family of twenty-one children. No doubt, she gained experience caring for her siblings and helping out around the house. She received a lady’s education in Germany, and upon returning home, was reintroduced to a childhood neighbor, publisher Samuel Beeton. They were married in 1856 and settled in Epsom.

Their firstborn son died in 1857, and about the time another son followed in 1859, Isabella began translating French novels for serialization and writing domestic articles for her husband's magazines. The second son died the year Household Management was published. Within a few years, two more sons were born (thankfully, they lived to adulthood), but Isabella contracted puerperal fever after her fourth child’s birth, and she died at age 28—a sad postscript.

The book she left, however, is a true gem which gives the reader a peek into middle-class Victorian life.
What to do when an infant convulsed? (A hot bath.) What do you do with a mouse-round of beef? (Boil or stew it.) What to do in case of Prussic Acid poisoning? (A pump to the back, smelling-salts, and artificial breathing—I guess mouth-to-mouth has been around longer than I thought.)

Isabella Beeton caught some flack for plagiarism, however. She liberally and without embarrassment took recipes and passages from two previously published books by Eliza Acton and Alexis Soyer without giving them credit--although she tends to state when a recipe is actually hers. Also, she has a tendency to contradict herself, a symptom of borrowing from multiple sources without checking for consistency. Her notes on tomatoes are a prime example: in one place, she calls them a "wholesome fruit," and in another, she describes the juice as emitting "a vapour so powerful as to cause vertigo and vomiting."

My abridged version removes these sorts of inconsistencies and the amusement one gains from them. Alas.

Why was this book so popular, especially considering it lifted a good portion of the contents from other sources? At the time, the middle class in England was growing rapidly. Industrialization and urbanization created new jobs, new lifestyles (husbands no longer coming home for a main midday meal, for example), and the opportunity to hire servants.

Mrs. Beeton addresses the needs of the housewife in this changing era. Her recipes state how many persons are served, the approximate cost, and the seasonal period in which something is fresh (Boiled Bread Pudding is a thrifty choice, costing only a shilling and always being in season).

Many of the recipes and tidbits are too extravagant for her audience, such as Turtle Soup or Truffles in Champagne Sauce. (Perhaps even Maize, what we call Corn on the Cob, which she says is delicious but difficult to get.) Likewise, most of her readers would never hire a butler, much less variegated levels of nursery staff.

Nevertheless, Mrs. Beeton's influence is still felt. Versions of the book are still in print, and it was used by food economists on the Downton Abbey crew. For a  hundred years, this book was a money-maker for its publisher, and many consider it the most famous English cookbook ever published.

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