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BOOK REVIEW

THE SHORT LIFE & LONG TIMES OF MRS. BEETON
By Kathryn Hughes
Alfred A. Knopf

 

By John Sidgwick

LONDON, 10 MARCH 2007 — It was only after World War II that there began the large-scale publication of cookery books. A small brook at first, this output has become a relentless river and few are the households today which do not contain a large assortment of recipe books containing instructions for the preparation of dishes from all over the world. Prior to the war, housewives depended almost entirely on the recipes included by Mrs. Isabella Beeton in her celebrated Beeton's Book of Household Management.

As its title suggests, the book is not confined to the preparation of food. Mrs. Beeton looked upon the housewife as the general administrator of the family enterprise. The husband earned, his wife made sure that his income was put to the best possible use for the good of family, children, servants, friends and the deserving public. Meals formed only a part of this. Isabella turned her attention to almost every aspect of the household, including the need to supervise the building's drainage systems. 

The future Mrs. Beeton was born Isabella Mayson in 1836 and was brought up first in the north of England and subsequently at Epsom, the home of horse-racing. She enjoyed the education of a conventional Victorian young woman and acquired linguistic skills at home and in Germany. She also became an accomplished pianist, well above the average of the conventional daughter of the house. At the age of twenty, she married a successful publisher, Sam Beeton, some five years her senior. Beeton had made his fortune by securing the rights in England of Uncle Tom's Cabin. The pair prospered and the Book of Household Management which they conjured up together appeared first in serial form. Isabella Beeton died at the age of twenty-eight, a few days after giving birth to her one viable child. All the others died in infancy or were still-born.

It must be said that anybody who today reads the chapters of her monumental work has to be astonished at the overall competence of this young woman. Indeed, for many years and well into the twentieth century, most people were convinced that she was in fact an invented character, the product of a syndicate. It is only relatively recently that various authors have established her true being. 

So much for the bare bones of her story. It is thanks to Kathryn Hughes that the full range of Isabella Beeton's accomplishment is at last revealed. I cannot recommend this volume too highly. It constitutes a remarkable overall survey of Victorian attitudes and practices. The biographical research covering a swarm of characters is impeccable in its accuracy, and the result makes highly-entertaining reading. The publishers, too, are to be congratulated on producing an old-fashioned volume, beautifully bound and printed.

Behind this, there is nevertheless a dreadful story. Samuel Beeton was a rake and from the outset of the marriage, in all probability he infected his wife with syphilis, a far from uncommon event in the nineteenth century. Although the disease was never diagnosed, the young woman's disastrous gynaecological history points to this. When she died a few days after giving birth to a boy who surprisingly survived into his eighties, the verdict was puerperal fever. Many women survived this calamity and the probability is that Isabella's body was weakened beyond hope by the hidden syphilis.

In my view, Isabella Beeton was an iconic figure and she deserves to take her place alongside those remarkable women who are still revered for their contribution to English life in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including Florence Nightingale, Nurse Edith Cavell and Mrs. Pankhurst.

 
The Short Life & Long Times of Mrs. Beeton
By Kathryn Hughes

Hardcover: 496 pages
Alfred A. Knopf, New York (2006)
ISBN-10: 0307263738
ISBN-13: 978-0307263735
$29.95

John Sidgwick was for many years Agricultural Attaché at the British Embassy, Paris. He currently writes on music and culture in Britain and France for Culturekiosque.com



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