Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management: Facsimile of the Original 1861 Edition
by Isabella Beeton
Published by Cassell
1112 pages, 2000
Buy it online
Domesticity for Victorian Dummies
Reviewed by Monica Stark
For many people, Mrs Beeton is synonymous with dusty etiquette and outmoded forms of cookery. Mrs Beeton makes one think of archaic stoves and pound upon pound of leaf lard, making a cod pie and how much to pay an under butler. While these days hardly anyone has laid their own eyes on a copy of any of the books published under Mrs Beeton's name, most people -- at least in certain parts of the world -- would understand a reference to "consulting your Mrs Beeton's." Especially those of us with a penchant for historical fiction. Long before there were Vanderbilts pounding the etiquette beat, Mrs Beeton was informing readers that "Early rising is one of the most essential qualities which enter into good Household Management," and that "Hospitality is a most excellent virtue."
The original work, Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management, was published in 1861 and was a huge seller. In the introduction to the facsimile edition, Kathryn Hughes writes that the book sold "60,000 copies in its first year, and 2 million by 1868." Clearly, Beeton had hit upon a hole in the public consciousness. As Hughes points out, Beeton had realized that there were "an increasing number of women like her, members of the new urban, commercial middle classes, who urgently needed advice on how to run a home. Hiring and managing servants, dealing with tricky tradesmen, spotting a high fever in a child -- all these were skills which girls no longer learned automatically from their mothers. 'Mrs Beeton' would step in to become a kind of universal mother."
Ironically, however, when she launched herself into the Mrs Beeton's project, Beeton was far from the mother image her name would come to convey. Isabella Beeton was just 21 years old as she started to work on Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management and, having had an eccentric childhood that included having the run of Epsom Downs racetrack, she had little hard knowledge on how to run a household. However, after her marriage to publisher Samuel Orchart Beeton, Isabella began writing articles for her husband's most successful publication, The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine. This would lead to her spying the need for a book that would answer the questions that she and young women like her were unable to get answers for.
There are 2751 numbered entries in Mrs Beeton's, with entries for making café au lait, treating thrush, duties of all of the household staff, an "explanation of French terms used in modern household cookery" and the niceties of giving a letter of introduction. The bulk of Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management is devoted to the culinary arts as they were known in England in the Victorian era because, as Beeton wrote, "Everything that is edible, and passes under the hands of the cook, is more or less changed, and assumes new forms. Hence the influence of that functionary is immense upon the happiness of the household."
Isabella Beeton didn't live to enjoy the fullness of her success, or even to see all of the books that would be published under her name. She died in 1865 at the age of 29. Recognizing that his wife's name had become a valuable brand, Samuel kept news of her death quiet and subsequently published many books under her name, including a few that had little resemblance to Isabella's Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management.
To be honest, there is little of modern relevance in that first Mrs Beeton's. Few of us need to know how much to pay a still-room maid, and even if one consulted the book to discover just what it is a still-room maid did or does, inflation has insured that the nine to 14 pounds per year Mrs Beeton's advises paying her would be inadequate, even if there were no allowance made for "Tea, Sugar, and Beer" as instructed. Contemporary relevance aside, Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management remains a charming portrait of life in the Victorian era, from the inside-out. | July 2001
Monica Stark is a freelance writer and editor.