Thursday, December 02, 2010

Superwoman, 1861 style.

What mental image is conjured up by the name “Mrs Beeton”? A stuffy Victorian matron, insisting on a place for everything and everything in its place? A stereotypical nineteenth century housewife confirming that the place for a woman was in the home? The author of the best known cookbook in the world, instantly familiar even to those who never cook?

Isabella Beeton’s famous Book of Household Management, published in 1861, was a monumental work of over one thousand pages. It was a massive, well organised, well indexed and incredibly detailed guide to every aspect of everyday life in the nineteenth century. By any publishing standards it was an enormous success, selling over 60,000 copies in its first year. Nearly two thousand recipes were set out for the first time in a format which became the standard: ingredient list, method, preparation time, cost and number of servings. It was no mere cookbook : it also covered management of servants, child-rearing, and medicine. A chapter on financial and legal issues included information about the rights of women who had separated from their husbands due to ill-treatment. Scattered throughout the book were edifying and uplifting quotations, and discussions of all manner of social, historical, scientific, agricultural, religious and household topics. It became the domestic bible of the Victorian middle class, and a standard text for several generations of housewives.

Isabella had had an unconventional upbringing. Her stepfather was the Clerk of Epsom Racecourse and the family home was in rooms under the grandstand. The 21 children of the blended family had the racecourse as their playground. Isabella had been educated in Europe, was fluent in French and German, and an accomplished pianist. At the age of twenty she married Samuel Beeton - apparently without her stepfather’s approval. Samuel was already a successful publisher who had found a niche in the market for popular magazines for the increasingly literate population. He was unusual for his era, believing that an intelligent wife was “one of the greatest boons heaven has bestowed on man”.

Middle class Victorian women were expected to support their husbands in the pursuit of their careers, primarily by ensuring that they were not distracted by domestic trivia. They were usually denied independent careers. Isabella certainly supported this clear demarcation of gender roles in her household manual. When she married however, she immediately threw herself with enthusiasm into her husband’s business, starting by contributing directly and prolifically to one of his publications – the Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine. The Book of Household Management grew from this magazine. Isabella’s new role as a wife had made her aware of the paucity of practical advice available for women suddenly faced with having to manage a large household. She saw a niche herself, and clearly decided to fill it. She was not a complete stranger to the skills required, growing up as she did in such a large family. It is unlikely that anything less than a military standard of organisation and discipline would allow a household of 21 children to function. In the first paragraph of her household manual she likens the role of the mistress to that of an army commander, and the clear military tone remains evident throughout the book.

Isabella never pretended expertise as a cook. A woman of her class was expected to have sufficient knowledge to enable her to properly supervise the goings-on in the kitchen, but certainly not to do any of the actual work. Later detractors accused her of plagiarism, but apart from a couple of exceptions she never claimed the recipes as her own. She did however collect, test, collate and standardise every one, doing exhaustive background research on ingredients, food chemistry, farming and cooking methods. When it was completed she said “I must frankly own, that if I had known, beforehand, that this book would have cost me the labour which it has, I should never have been courageous enough to commence it.”

Isabella Beeton was a gifted journalist and editor, a tireless worker and a meticulous researcher. Her greatest gift was her ability to organise massive amounts of detail into an interesting and accessible form – a century before computers. Creating her legacy took four years, during which time she suffered the loss of her first two sons in infancy. She did not see her own thirtieth birthday, dying a month after her fourth son was born. Ironically, the cleanliness which she had insisted was a household necessity was lacking in her medical attendants, and her death was due to infection acquired at the birth.

One recipe of her own which Mrs. Beeton did include in the book was her charitable soup for the deserving poor of the neighbourhood.


Ingredients. An ox-cheek, any pieces of trimmings of beef, which may be bought very cheaply (say 4 lbs.), a few bones, any pot-liquor the larder may furnish, 1/4 peck of onions, 6 leeks, a large bunch of herbs, ½ lb. of celery (the outside pieces, or green tops, do very well); ½ lb. of carrots, ½ lb. of turnips, ½ lb. of coarse brown sugar, ½ a pint of beer, 4 lbs. of common rice, or pearl barley; ½ lb. of salt, 1 oz. of black pepper, a few raspings, 10 gallons of water.

Mode. Cut up the meat in small pieces, break the bones, put them in a copper, with the 10 gallons of water, and stew for ½ an hour. Cut up the vegetables, put them in with the sugar and beer, and boil for 4 hours. Two hours before the soup is wanted, add the rice and raspings,and keep stirring till it is well mixed in the soup, which simmer gently. If the liquor reduces too much, fill up with water.

Time. 6 ½ hours. Average cost, 1 ½ d. per quart.

Note. The above recipe was used in the winter of 1858 by the Editress, who made, each week, in her copper, 8 or 9 gallons of this soup, for distribution amongst about a dozen families of the village near which she lives. The cost, as will be seen, was not great; but she has reason to believe that the soup was very much liked, and gave to the members of those families, a dish of warm, comforting food, in place of the cold meat and piece of bread which form, with too many cottagers, their usual meal, when, with a little more knowledge of the "cooking" art, they might have, for less expense, a warm dish, every day.

Quotation for the Day.

A place for everything and everything in its place.
Isabella Beeton, 1861


Ken Albala said...

This is GREAT stuff. I never realized she died so young, until I recently read a research paper on her by one of my students. I always pictured her looking, well, like Queen Victoria! How off could I have been?

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The Old Foodie said...

HI Ken. Yes, the irony is that Semmelweis had already done his work on puerperal fever (before Pasteur's Germ Theory stuff), but even two decades later it was not universally recognised - no doubt in part due to him being an Austrian jew, so very low on the pecking order amongst medical scientists of the time.
The best biography by far of Isabella Beeton is 'The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton' by Kathryn Hughes.

SharleneT said...

Sounds like a lady I would have loved to have known -- I'm all into categorizing, etc... Thanks, again, for some great work and information... Come visit when you can...

Lidian said...

Sounds like you are also a fan of Kathryn Hughes' The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton which my dear parents-in-law recommended to me (my FIL is like me a Victorian enthusiast)!

I have some of the 1930s era Isabella-free Mrs. Beeton cookbooks and love the politely know-it-all tone of them. They are great fun to read!

Cheers, Lidian (Laura)
still Kitchen Retroing