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Beeton, Isabella Mary

Isabella Mary Beeton

The British author Mrs. Beeton (1836-1865), born Isabella Mary Mayson, was, in the words of Kathryn Hughes, author of The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton, “the first domestic goddess.” Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management, published in 1861, was a nearly universal fixture in British middle-class households for much of the next century.

In many ways, Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management was the predecessor to Martha Stewart Living, The Joy of Cooking, Ladies' Home Journal and other glossy magazines of its kind. Its chapters were originally published separately in issues of The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine, largely the work of Mrs. Beeton and her husband, Samuel. Innovative in many ways, the book was also very much a product of its time, reflecting an England in which the women of a rising middle class lived independent of family ties and traditional domestic skills. Although not of substantial value to the modern homemaker (“First, catch your hare,” begins one recipe), Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management has remained a treasure trove for historians and others curious about life in Britain's Victorian era.

Born into Racing Family

Isabella Mary Mayson was born on March 14, 1836, on Milk Street in London. She was the first of 17 siblings born to her mother, Elizabeth. Two husbands were involved; after the death of Isabella's father, Benjamin Mayson, Elizabeth's second husband, Henry Dorling, came to the marriage with four children of his own, and the couple had 13 more children. Isabella grew up as the eldest of a brood of 21 children, and was frequently responsible for cooking for, clothing, cleaning up after, and generally raising many of them. She had early training in domestic arts from another source, too; Henry Dorling was the clerk of the Epsom horse track 14 miles outside London, and she grew up watching the massive concession kitchens beneath the grandstands operating at full speed.

Isabella had a spotty education that was, on balance, a good one for a woman of her time and place. She was sent abroad in 1851 to a boarding school in Heidelberg, Germany, where she learned to speak fluent German and French. Back in Epsom she took piano lessons, which was expected of a marriageable young woman, but she also expressed a desire to study baking, which her family was less happy about, as a woman with social aspirations would be expected to leave that chore to servants. They relented—pastry cookery was on the border of acceptability—but her younger half-sisters recalled, according to Hughes, that her cooking lessons were regarded as “ultra modern and not quite nice.”

Around 1855 Isabella met Samuel Beeton, a goodlooking, cigar-smoking publisher with a slightly rakish past. All the cards were in place for her to fall in love. Beeton was the son of a family friend, and earlier in the decade he had made a bold and successful stroke: he traveled to the United States and persuaded author Harriet Beecher Stowe to sell his S.O. Beeton publishing firm the British rights to her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. With the proceeds from that international success he had launched a pair of magazines that catered to the tastes of middle-class readers: The Boy's Own Journal and The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine.

And fall in love Isabella did. The couple began a copious exchange of letters, escalating from Isabella's “I am so continually thinking of you that it seems to do me a vast amount of good even to do a little black and white business” to physical intimacies they described with code words such as “getting into a cab”—a horse-drawn hansom cab that allowed them privacy from Isabella's family. The reactions of her family were problematic, for the Dorlings disapproved of Beeton and his man-about-town image. The courtship was a long one by Victorian standards, but they were finally married on July 10, 1856. The couple moved into an apartment comprising half a spacious villa in the new London suburb of Pinner.

Suffered Miscarriages

The couple honeymooned in the south of France, and it soon became clear that Isabella had conceived a child. Samuel Orchart Beeton was born in the spring of 1857 but died on August 25, just three months old. Isabella became pregnant several times over the next few years, but each pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. A second son, also named Samuel, was born in 1859 but died at the age of three after a period of illness. This sequence of events, argued Hughes, “strongly suggests that [Isabella] was of the thousands of unfortunate young Victorian brides who were infected with syphilis on their honeymoon …. This is a classic pattern: syphilitic women have no trouble conceiving but … if a child does survive, it is only for a few sickly, miserable months.” Samuel Beeton's known propensity toward frequenting prostitutes before his involvement with Isabella also supported Hughes's hypothesis.

Partly to deal with the emotional strain of these developments, Isabella threw herself into her work. That was an unusual solution for a woman of the Victorian age, but Isabella was an unusual woman, and she had found that her talents were in demand at her husband's busy publishing office. She began by translating German and French stories for The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine, and soon appeared on the masthead as “editress.” Around 1859 she began to write articles on cooking and other domestic skills. The assignment turned into a monthly column on those subjects, and Isabella found an enthusiastic audience among upwardly mobile women readers trying to manage busy households without the benefit of a traditional support structure. By 1860 Samuel Beeton had announced a circulation figure of 60,000 copies for the monthly magazine; a concrete indicator of its success was the appearance of a competitor, Ladies' Treasury.

Isabella became “Mrs. Beeton,” and had already become a household name when Samuel Beeton issued her collected contributions to The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine in book form in October of 1861. At first merely The Book of Household Management, its title soon acquired the more personal “Mrs. Beeton's” prefix. Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management had 2,751 entries, divided into sections covering “Information for the Mistress, Housekeeper, Cook, Kitchen-Maid, Butler, Footman, Coachman, Valet, Upper and Under House-Maids, Lady's-Maid, Maidof-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.” An immediate bestseller, the book recorded sales in the millions of copies over the next several years.

Provided Historical Background

Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management included illustrations and a wealth of historical material. But the bulk of the book was given over to recipes. Noting correctly, for example, that asparagus was “light and easily digested, but is not very nutritious,” Isabella then went on to offer a recipe for asparagus soup that ran as follows: “INGREDIENTS—1 1/2 pint of split peas, a teacupful of gravy, 4 young onions, 1 lettuce cut small, 1/2 a head of celery, 1/2 a pint of asparagus cut small, 1/2 a pint of cream, 3 quarts of water: colour the soup with spinach juice. Mode.—Boil the peas, and rub them through a sieve; add the gravy, and then stew by themselves the celery, onions, lettuce, and asparagus, with the water. After this, stew altogether, and add the colouring and cream, and serve.”

Several aspects of this passage, which was typical of those in the book devoted to cookery, were novel at the time. Cookbooks of that period rarely listed ingredients at the beginning of a recipe (Mrs. Beeton, in fact, may have been the first to do so), even though such a configuration would be helpful indeed to a shopper in a hurry. Her notations on nutrition, while not uniformly accurate, played a role in promoting the deep modern linkage between dietetics and cuisine. Moreover, Mrs. Beeton's recipes were among the few available at the time that specified how long a dish should be cooked. Few things in Mrs. Beeton's book were original, for Isabella borrowed liberally from French cookbooks, other magazines, and classic writings on food and horticulture. Hughes noted that “there is scarcely a line in the book that can be said to belong to her.” Yet, according to Hughes, “she did something unique with the material that she borrowed. She turned it into that thing most beloved by the mid-Victorians, a system which, if properly applied, would produce a guaranteed result—in this case domestic well-being.”

By the mid-1860s, Isabella finally seemed on the way to domestic well-being herself. Her third child, Orchart Beeton, was born at the Beeton company offices on December 2, 1863, and grew into a healthy child. Again the pattern was typical of syphilis, a disease which would fall into dormant phases after several years of activity. In 1864 Isabella became pregnant with her fourth son, Mayson Moss Beeton. He was born healthy on January 29, 1865, but Isabella had fallen deathly ill by the next day. Her death on February 6, at age 28, was due not to syphilis but to another common scourge of Victorian women, puerperal fever, which, like syphilis, is easily treatable with modern antibiotics.

The Mrs. Beeton books did not die with their author. Samuel Beeton kept his wife's death quiet, issuing later editions of the Book of Household Management with new prefaces that suggested she was still alive. Over time, other Mrs. Beeton books appeared, and Mrs. Beeton became as much a brand name as an individual. Samuel Beeton himself was distressed by his wife's death, and his later years were unhappy ones. Editions of the once-wholesome Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine began to contain barely disguised episodes of sadomasochistic fantasy in the form of lengthy descriptions and discussions of whipping. Throughout much of the twentieth century, however, the name Mrs. Beeton served as shorthand for domestic quality in England and many other parts of the English-speaking world.

Books

Hughes, Kathryn, The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton, Knopf, 2006.

Periodicals

Daily Mail (London, England), October 7, 2006.

Guardian (London, England), February 11, 2006; June 2, 2006; March 17, 2007.

Times (London, England), October 8, 2005.

Online

Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management, http://www.mrsbeeton.com (January 19, 2008).

“Mrs. Beeton: The Stowmarket Connection,” Stowmarket History, http://www.stowmarket-history.co.uk/Mrs_Beeton.htm (January 19, 2008).

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