Thoroughly researched, sympathetic and highly readable biography of the Victorian housewife who wrote the iconic Book of Household Management.
Hughes (George Eliot, 1999, etc.) delves into the lives of two generations of Isabella Mayson Beeton’s ancestors to reconstruct the world into which she was born. She shows us Isabella as a child making herself useful in a household containing a multitude of children; as a bride-to-be preparing to set up housekeeping; and as the young wife of a struggling book and magazine publisher. Sam Beeton launched The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine in 1852, four years before their marriage, and by 1857, Isabella was writing for it. The Book of Household Management soon followed, appearing in 48-page installments beginning in 1859, with Isabella serving as compiler and editor. She may not have originated the recipes in it, but she excelled as a journalist and organizer. Under her direction, it came to be the source on which middle-class Victorians relied for guidance in all matters domestic: not just the preparation and presentation of food, but coping with servants, managing money, cleaning, stocking a pantry, entertaining, raising healthy children. To capture its flavor, Hughes inserts between the chapters on Isabella’s life brief sections she calls Interludes, which consider the Book of Household Management’s various aspects: its moral tone, its assumption that readers aspired to a higher style of living, prejudices against the servant class, an obsession with the purity of food and a nostalgia for a vanishing agrarian world. Acolytes assumed that the advice was coming from an experienced matron, but Isabella never even achieved middle age. After her death at 29, apparently of syphilis contracted from Sam on their honeymoon, her husband’s firm foundered. The book was acquired by another publisher, but the Beeton name remained firmly attached to it. Hughes follows the reception of its various incarnations through the centennial edition of 1960.
A rich portrait of Beeton’s home life and the world of publishing in Victorian England.