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The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton
Synopses & Reviews
In Victorian England there was only one fail-safe authority on matters ranging from fashion to puddings to scullery maids: Beetons Book of Household Management. In this delightful, superbly researched biography, award-winning historian Kathryn Hughes pulls back the lace curtains to reveal the woman behind the book--Mrs. Beeton, the first domestic diva of the modern age--and explores the life of the book itself.
Isabella Beeton was a twenty-one-year-old newlywed with only six months experience running her own home when--coaxed by her husband, a struggling publisher--she began to compile her book of recipes and domestic advice. The aspiring mother hardly suspected that her name would become synonymous with housewifery for generations. Nor would the women who turned to the book for guidance ever have guessed that its author lived in a simple house in the suburbs with a single maid-of-all-work instead of presiding over a well-run estate. Isabella would die at twenty-eight, shortly after the book's publication, never knowing the extent of her legacy.
As her survivors faced bankruptcy, sexual scandal and a bitter family feud that lasted more than a century, Mrs. Beetons book became an institution. For an exploding population of the newly affluent, it prescribed not only how to cook and clean but ways to cope with the social flux of the emerging consumer culture: how to plan a party for ten, whip up a hair pomade or calculate how much money was needed to permit the hiring of a footman. In the twentieth century, Mrs. Beeton would be accused of plagiarism, blamed for the dire state of British cookery and used to market everything from biscuits to meat pies.
This elegant, revelatory portrait of a lady journalist, as she lived and as she existed in the minds of her readers, is also a vivid picture of Victorian home life and its attendant anxieties, nostalgia, and aspirations--not so different from those felt in America today.
"As its title proclaims, Kathryn Hughes' discursive yet peppy book is both the biography of an individual and the story of an icon. Isabella Mayson Beeton died at age 28 in 1865, but Mrs. Beeton, creator of the 'Book of Household Management,' is still with us. As recently as 2004, her publisher was offering yet another knockoff of the BOHM (as Hughes familiarly dubs it throughout), this one promising... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) 'recipes and tips from the original domestic goddess.' Anxiety about housekeeping, we learn from Hughes, is nothing new. In its early years, the BOMH guided nervous Victorian newlyweds through the minefields of planning dinners and handling servants. Later, it showed expatriate brides how to maintain a proper British home in an Indian bungalow or an Australian sheep station. Chopped up into bite-sized versions such as 'Mrs. Beeton's Sixpenny Cookery,' it extended a 20th-century welcome to working-class women depicted in earlier editions only as slovenly maids. By 1932, when a hand-tinted photograph of her went on display at London's National Portrait Gallery, the BOHM had been reprinted and revamped so many times that viewers were surprised to learn that Mrs. Beeton was not a commercial invention like Betty Crocker, but an actual human being. Very human, in Hughes' lively portrait. Isabella Mayson was calm, self-possessed and practical from an early age; she had to be, as the eldest daughter in a family that eventually contained 21 children. Yet she fell in love with volatile, slightly raffish publisher Sam Beeton, whose feckless business practices — and genuine respect for Isabella's abilities — ensured that she would have little time to spare for the homemaking she enshrined in print as a woman's highest calling. Like the books and magazines that the firm of S.O. Beeton cranked out for the voracious, rapidly expanding new market of white-collar, lower middle-class workers (and their wives), Isabella and Sam's marriage was a fascinating mix of sincerely held conventional values and innovative departures from tradition. Isabella probably started writing for the Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine in 1857, simply because her husband desperately needed someone to do the cookery column. She was just 21 and pregnant with their first child, so this solution to Sam's personnel problem was likely to be short-term. It wasn't. Within six months, the couple was planning the 'Book of Household Management,' one of many volumes spun off from S.O. Beeton's various magazines. Before the 'Book' was completed in 1861, Isabella joined the Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine as 'editress.' A series of miscarriages and two sickly babies who died in infancy (the result of syphilis contracted from her spouse, Hughes concludes) didn't deter her from becoming a full partner in the hectic affairs of S.O. Beeton, which juggled too many projects for its own economic good. Had she not died prematurely in childbirth, her biographer speculates, she might have curbed the financial recklessness that soon deprived Sam of his most valuable asset: the book that made his dead wife a deathless symbol of domesticity. As she did in 'The Victorian Governess,' Hughes makes intelligent use of letters and diaries to tell vivid personal stories, while keeping a sharp eye on their broader significance. In her idiosyncratically structured narrative, the author from time to time interjects an 'Interlude' that considers some aspect of the BOHM for what it reveals about Victorian culture. The very first one captures the guide's central paradox, noting that it 'is saturated with a longing for an agrarian world that has slipped into extinction,' but was written by 'a sharp-edged daughter of the industrial age (who) spends much of her time urging short cuts on her readers.' Perhaps the most telling of all the Interludes reminds us that the BOHM, which began appearing in serial parts the same year that Darwin published 'The Origin of Species,' expresses in its home-centered way the same 19th-century faith in classification and organization. There is very little original content in the 'Book' (Hughes spends rather too many pages detailing the sources Isabella cribbed from), but what is new is Isabella's creation of 'that thing most beloved by the mid-Victorians, a system which, if properly applied, would produce a guaranteed result — in this case domestic well-being.' Her readers needed it: In an age of extreme mobility, they had either moved away from their hometowns (no mother to consult) or climbed the social ladder so fast with their husbands that they had no idea what were considered proper manners in their new milieu. Hughes is at her best when explaining with appreciative wit just how Mrs. Beeton 'rais(ed) the dignity of housework to that of any rational occupation carried on by men.' She falters when she turns to the question of how the BOHM, already a steady seller when Isabella died, survived its creator's demise to become a legendary vade mecum, reinvented for each generation by the astute publisher who inherited it from a bankrupt Sam. The author's intelligence never deserts her, but her already liberal sense of relevance does. What has been a charming willingness to ramble through odd byways becomes in the book's final quarter an annoying tendency to wander among whatever digressions Hughes fancies (tightly laced corsets, overcooked vegetables, you name it), with only belated returns to the subject allegedly at hand. A more disciplined approach might have saved Hughes from her excesses and pared her text to its essence as superb social history. As it is, excesses and all, 'The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton' is a smart look at a cultural phenomenon, but it could have been even better. Wendy Smith is the author of 'Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940.'" Reviewed by Wendy Smith, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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About the Author
Kathryn Hughes is the author of George Eliot: The Last Victorian, which won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Biography, and The Victorian Governess, which remains the standard text on the subject. Educated at Oxford University, she holds a Ph.D. in Victorian studies and now teaches biographical studies at the University of East Anglia. She is a Guardian book critic.
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