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The Victorians

Mrs Beeton – domestic genius or plagiarist?

Title page of ‘Household Management’ Wellcome L0042710.jpg (Source – Wikimedia Commons)

Victorian household management

In previous posts we’ve seen some of the immense industrial and social changes that took place during the Victorian era , and the effect on what people ate. (https://english-stuff.com/2020/11/07/what-did-victorians-eat/.

Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management  was a respected source of authority on culinary and domestic matters and a hugely influential force on shaping the burgeoning middle class. The book is still on sale today– check it out on Amazon or in other bookstores. You can even download it to your Kindle.

Maull & Polyblank – National Portrait Gallery; cropped from w:File:Isabella Mary Beeton.jpg Source –  Wikimedia Commons

Isabella Beeton

So here she is, the lady herself. You may have imagined the writer of a the Victorian domestic bible to be a middle aged or older lady, rigourously dressed in black. But Isabella was only 25 years old when Household Mangement was published in 1861. And shockingly, 3 years later, she was dead.

Isabella packed a lot into her short but intense life. Born in London in 1836, she was sent to live with relatives in Cumberland in north west England after her father died, at just four years old. When Isabella’s mother married again a few years later, the family moved to Surrey including Isabella, her two sisters and a further thirteen half siblings. As one of the elder children, Isabella was called upon to take care of the rest and this undoubtedly gave her valuable lessons in how to run a large household.

Portrait of Samuel Orchart Beeton by Julian Portch – National Portrait Gallery, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org

At the age of 20, Isabella married Samuel Beeton, a publisher, who encouraged her to contribute to The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine –  a publication focused on cuisine, fashion and fiction, to keep nice middle class ladies occupied at home. Isabella began work at the publication as a translator of French short stories (having learnt both French and German at a boarding school in Germany) but soon became the editor of a supplement which was, in effect, the cookery and household section.

The collation of these 24 supplements were to become the renowned Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management . Isabella copied recipes from other books or requested that readers write in with their favourite recipes, which were copied and/or edited by the Beetons without naming any of their sources. Unthinkable by contemporary standards, but these were different times. Isabella did test runs with the recipes at home to ensure their reliability before they were printed. The only contribution actually from Isabella herself was a recipe for soup that she distributed to the needy in 1858 and 1859.

Page 547 of Household Management   https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mrs_Beeton_(547).jpg

The culinary delights you can see here on page 547 of Household Mangement shows a selection of starters – namely :

1. Toulouse Pastry  2. Fillets of Beef  3. Beef Galantine 4. Zéphires of Duck 5. Mutton Cutlets in Aspic 6. Sauté of  Veal 7. Chartreuese of Pheasant 8. Curried Veal 9. Chicken Médaillons 10.Veal Stew

These meals may  sound strange to us now, but all in all the recipes in the book are a pretty clear reflection of a what a well-heeled Victorian family generally ate. And in case you were wondering (because I did too), galantine is a French word for de-boned stuffed meat, a zéphire is a mousse, and a chartreuse is a dish that includes vegetables such as carrots and cabbage and sometimes meat, wrapped in salad or leaves and presented in a dome. Let’s move on before you ask me anything I can’t answer….

Title Page of Sept 1861 Issue of The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine
Source ;https://ciaffi.wordpress.com/Wikimedia Commons

Household Mangement

Isabella’s book was not just a cookery book. Managing a wealthy middlle class Victorian household was practically the same as running a small business, albeit a non-profitable one. The recipes were the main part of the book although other domestic issues such as finance management, supervising servants, entertaining visitors, child care, fashion and decoration were also included. The Domestic Magazine was compiled into her famous book, which was a major publishing event when it was launched on 1st October 1861.

Popularity

Sixty thousand copies of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management  were sold in just the first twelve months after its publication. The Oxford English Dictionary stated that the words Mrs Beeton were “a term for an authority on all things domestic and culinary”.  By 1868, almost two million copies had been sold. But why was it so popular ?

In Victorian England, crowds of people were flocking to the cities in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, in search of a more financially stable lifestyle. As the middle class increased in size, women were often left to deal with the business of managing the household affairs while their husbands were out all day at work. The book was aimed at giving women control over domestic matters and keeping them centred on the home. It is only fair to say that up to this point in history, women had had very little say in anything. This was probably the next best thing to a career, owing to the fact that female presence in the workplace was still an event waiting to happen.

Household management was undoubtedly a book that could guide its readers through the pitfalls of being left in charge of their staff, children and homes. It also struck a note with those who wished to be thrifty and cut costs. We should also remember that in the throes of the Industrial Revolution, the differing lifestyle imposed by the flow of people from rural areas to the cities meant that many young women had received little or no training in how to run a household. And that families often had numerous children.

A later addition to Isabella’s work. Note the publisher is Ward, Lock & Co, who bought the rights to Household Management after Isabella’s death.  Photo in public domain.

Isabella was atypical of her generation. Despite writing a book that focused on what was considered to be women’s work in the home, she went to the publisher’s office every day. It was also very unusual for a book to be published with a female writer’s name – it is highly likely this was due to her connections in the publishing world. She even edited her husband’s magazine for two years.

But sadly, in 1865, at the age of just 28, she died a day after giving birth to her third child, probably from puerperal fever, a bacterial infection contracted after giving birth. Antibiotics had yet to be invented and the level of hygiene during the delivery of a baby in the 1800’s was certainly not up to our modern standards. How lucky we are today. How ironic that Isabella should die giving birth, when she was dedicated to improving family life.

Her legacy

A few editions of Household Management after Isabellas’s death included an obituary, but the publishing house – no longer Samuel Beeton as he had sold the rights to the book to cover his debts – preferred to omit any reference to Isabella’s death, and the bestselling book continued to be revised and extended, giving the impression that Mrs Beeton was personally writing every word. The first edition had 44 chapters, by 1906 it had 74 chapters and over 2,000 pages.

Some critics of Household Management say that it reinforced the gender stereotypes that women have fought against for so long, plus many of the recipes were little more than plagiarism. But we have to understand the Beeton phenomenon within its historical context. Her book allowed women to feel that they had some authority over what happened in their homes in an era when they had practically no control over anything else.

The book also empowered women with a wealth of information on domestic matters, and Isabella herself never claimed that the recipes were her own. Besides, she tested out the recipes and developed an easy-to-read format with the ingredients listed first and the method step by step, along with the cost and the estimated cooking time, similar to what we expect to see in a cookery book today. In contrast to earlier, more highbrow cookbooks, it made the art of cuisine accessible, at a time when people had turned their backs on a rural way of life and the culinary skills they might have acquired in the countryside.

Household management  is a clear reflection of Victorian values such as thrift, tidiness and cleanliness.  Whilst many of the recipes would not appeal to us today, and some of her domestic advice would be out of step with the times,  thanks to Isabella’s book we have a vivid insight into the way the Victorian middle classes lived at home, providing valuable information for sociologists and historians. Isabella was a key figure in shaping this middle-class identity and was without a doubt, a strong woman who gave other women both aspirations and empowerment in their lives, the Victorian forerunner of a life coach. The first ever domestic goddess.

Beeton recipes on video

I can’t help but feel that Isabella would love the fact that recipes from her book are still used today and she surely would have embraced our communications technology as a means to reach her audience. On youtube you can find quite a few dishes from Household Management still being cooked and shown today. As a finale to this post I have chosen this scone recipe.

Hope you enjoy the video and let me know your comments!  https://youtu.be/mPiW1unz1_g

By paulinell

I am an EFL teacher, examiner, Spanish to English translator and English-stuff is my blog on English history, culture and language.

2 replies on “Mrs Beeton – domestic genius or plagiarist?”

Interesting tale. For what it’s worth, recipes can’t be copyrighted, only their forms can be–the wording itself. To come up with the idea of listing the ingredients first–something I count on–is a huge innovation.

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Thanks for the info on copyright, Ellen. And Isabella was certainly an innovator, despite the fact she used recipes from other sources in her book. But it is also unlikely that the contributors expected anythimg in return.

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