Why you should care
Because she braised, glazed and sautéed her way into Victorian hearts.
“As with the commander of an army, or the leader of any enterprise, so is it with the mistress of a house,” Isabella Beeton wrote in 1861 as she set out to arm British housewives with the stirring, chopping and hostessing skills they would need to do battle for Victorian respectability.
But make no mistake: Mrs. Beeton was no mere housewife. She was a hardworking journalist who helped whip up British cookery — for better or worse — and give rise to the Real Simple approach to life management.
Born Isabella Mary Mayson in 1836, the future Mrs. Beeton was the eldest of 21 children; her father died when she was young, and her mother remarried the socially aspiring Henry Dorling. Helping manage the melded household was valuable training for Isabella’s later career — skills that were further honed at finishing school in Heidelberg, Germany, where she learned German and French. But her upwardly mobile parents were less than thrilled by her choice of a husband: The handsome and ambitious publisher Samuel Beeton was a bit of a “Jack the lad,” says Cambridge University history professor Lucy Delap. Disappointed that Isabella didn’t “marry up,” Delap says, Dorling refused to attend the wedding.
The best-selling writer and journalist helped Victorian women break through social barriers, and she remains very much a part of British culture today.
In 1857, the Beetons welcomed a son, who died at 3 months. Isabella suffered a series of miscarriages and the birth of another son, who died at age 3 — a pattern that “suggests that [Isabella] was of the thousands of unfortunate young Victorian brides who were infected with syphilis on their honeymoon,” writes Kathryn Hughes in The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton. Domestic bliss wasn’t coming easily, so Isabella applied herself to the family business, translating German and French stories for Samuel’s publication The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine. Within a couple of years, she was writing her own articles on cooking, housekeeping and fashion, and as her readership grew, she and Samuel organized a compendium: Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management.
The book covered every imaginable aspect of domesticity, from child-rearing to cleaning rugs and pickling onions. Among the 2,751 entries, there are step-by-step recipes (a novelty at the time), instructions for folding napkins, seasonal information, and guidance on how to manage servants and which item of Victorian kitchen equipment to use for what cooking task. One passage about moldy cheese warns that “decomposing bodies are not wholesome eating,” and new moms are advised not to breast-feed after attending the theater, “because your breast milk will be overexcited,” Delap explains, laughing. In effect, the quirky guide served as a manual for those eager to climb the social ladder. “You may not know the etiquette about how to do this or that, but I’m going to explain it to you,” Delap says of Beeton’s tone.
If Beeton’s notion to offer a practical guide for keeping house was strikingly original, her recipes were decidedly secondhand. She liberally lifted ideas from others and, even worse, many recipes did not work. The “recipes were not tried and tested, so they’re famous for having problems in them,” Delap says. It’s even been suggested that Britain’s domestic goddess didn’t know how to cook. “She might’ve just dabbled,” says Delap, noting that Beeton’s social status probably meant servants did most of the cooking. But that doesn’t mean Beeton is to blame for Britain’s reputation for bland cooking. Beeton may have been sparing with the spices, but “her recipes were really quite experimental,” Delap argues.
And she didn’t need garlic or olive oil to stir up excitement. Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management sold 60,000 copies its first year and nearly 2 million by 1868 — by which time, Isabella had been dead for three years. At age 28, she succumbed to puerperal fever following the birth of her second surviving son — a fact her husband chose to gloss over in a bid to keep the brand alive and selling. While Isabella was reasonably well known during her lifetime, she became famous in death. “Thanks to the repeated use of her name to sell further versions, her reputation was growing across the 19th century,” says Delap, noting that several revised editions of the guide were released, along with new manuals on everything from cold desserts and embroidery to microwave cookery — all carrying Beeton’s name.
If Isabella and her brand seemed inseparable, in truth, the original guide “was never really her,” Delap says, since she reproduced others’ ideas. “She was kind of a magpie figure,” as Delap puts it, more than a powerhouse in her own right, but still, the approach worked. Not only did Beeton’s brand thrive, but it also gave rise to the straightforward, organized, “I’m on your level” approach we see in modern cookbooks the world over.
Beeton’s domesticity may irk some feminists, but “if you think of her life as a whole,” Delap says, “she was actually quite a promising model for feminists.” Indeed, the best-selling writer and journalist helped Victorian women break through social barriers, and she remains very much a part of British culture today. Beeton represented “the place we go to be loved and fed,” Hughes writes, and thus became “part of the fabric of who we feel ourselves to be.”