I was having a sort through my many (far too many!) cookery books last weekend and I came across a copy of ‘Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management’ first published back in1861. The name Mrs Beeton is still widely known and referred to over 150 years later. The book is still in print today.
But what do most people know about Mrs Beeton? Until I read a recent biography of her by Kathryn Hughes, I’d imagined Mrs Beeton was an elderly Victorian lady who recorded recipes and household tips gleaned through decades of running a thoroughly organised family home. But nothing could be further from the truth.
Born Isabella Mayson, she was an English journalist and editor who married Samuel Beeton, an ambitious publisher and magazine editor. In 1857, less than a year after their wedding, Isabella began writing for one of her husband’s publications, ‘The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine’. She translated French fiction and wrote the cookery column, though all the recipes were actually plagiarised from other works or sent in by the magazine’s readers!
In 1859, the Beetons launched a series of monthly supplements to ‘The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine’. These 24 instalments were published in one volume as ‘Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management’ in October 1861. It sold 60,000 copies in the first year alone and was one of the major publishing events of the nineteenth century. Of the 1112 pages, over 900 contained recipes. The remainder provided advice on fashion, childcare, animal husbandry, poisons, the management of servants, science, religion, first aid and the importance in the use of local and seasonal produce.
Isabella was working on an abridged version of her book, which was to be titled ‘The Dictionary of Every-Day Cookery’, when she died of puerperal fever in February 1865 at the age of just 28. As well as producing an incredible amount of published works, in her tragically short life, she gave birth to four children, two of whom died in infancy, and had several miscarriages.
Her name is firmly linked with knowledge and authority on Victorian cooking and home management, and the Oxford English Dictionary states that by 1891 the term ‘Mrs Beeton’ had become a generic name for a domestic authority. She is also considered a strong influence in the shaping of a middle-class identity of the Victorian era. What an amazing legacy for a woman who died so young.