- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 20, 2006

THE SHORT LIFE AND LONG TIMES OF MRS. BEETON

By Kathryn Hughes

Knopf, $29.95, 481 pages

REVIEWED BY MARTIN RUBIN

In calling Isabella Beeton, that icon of cookery and household management in Victorian Britain, “the first domestic goddess,” the publishers of Kathryn Hughes’ exhaustive yet consistently sprightly biography are obviously reaching out to Martha Stewart’s vast reading audience. And certainly there is a case to be made that Mrs. Stewart is the Mrs. Beeton of our day, at least on this side of the Atlantic.

You won’t find more than a glancing reference to Martha Stewart in Ms. Hughes’ text, however; the author’s orientation is largely British. In our global culture, though, many of the Britons she invokes, from Elizabeth David to Nigella Lawson, will resonate with American readers.

Isabella Beeton (1836-1865) is a quintessentially British figure whose works, notably her “Book of Household Management,” which already went through several editions in the five years prior to her death, not only reflected the housekeeping culture of her time, but also became a formative text which increasingly instructed women how to run their domestic establishments.

And indeed, the book’s actual title (which one suspects is the one contributed by its author rather than those trying to market it) speaks to the enormous influence which Mrs. Beeton and her works exerted on British food and life for many decades — perhaps even more than a century — after her tragically early death at the age of 28.

If Kathryn Hughes’ book accomplishes nothing else, it should at least sweep away the mental image which so many took away from reading “Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management” and the other tomes associated with her name. Such massive monuments to industriousness, with their tone of absolute authority, are bound to summon in readers a picture of a formidable matriarch of mature years.

Who else but a woman seasoned with the experience of running a household for decades could have produced such magisterial pages upon pages of advice? A young woman of intelligence and spirit, unafraid to look at what others had done, full of spirit and enterprise, that’s who.

The one cliche that is true from what one might term the “received wisdom” about Mrs. Beeton is her industriousness and energy, which was the equal of that of any other Victorian exemplum. But Katherine Hughes also makes it clear that, in a reversal of the old saw, behind this successful woman was a husband, Sam Beeton, who was crucial to that success. Not only did Sam give Isabella the name by which she would become famous, but he was her publisher, marketer and cheerleader.

Indeed, it might not be too much to say that he was her “onlie begetter,” that without him no one would ever have heard of Isabella. As the man who had made a fortune from bringing out the authoritative British edition of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” he was well-placed to accomplish this feat. And indeed so successful was he in marketing the phenomenon of Mrs. Beeton that it kept on going and growing even after fiscal misfortune had allowed actual ownership to slip from his grasp.

But if his financial legacy to their children was less than it might have been, he had securely enshrined their name in posterity’s pantheon.

“The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton” is, as its title indicates, as much a biography of the woman who actually was Isabella Mayson Beeton as it is an account of the industry she spawned. Tragically, Sam Beeton, the man who gave life to her phenomenal book, also infected her with syphilis, which resulted in a string of miscarriages, stillbirths and the heartbreak of two children who were unable to thrive long after birth. But before Mrs. Beeton succumbed to puerperal fever in January 1865, she did succeed in having two sons who would survive her into adulthood.

Ms. Hughes, the author of a biography of George Eliot, has once again brought to life an extraordinary woman who refused to be limited by the nostrums of her time. Her indelible portrait of Isabella Beeton, blessed with so much energy and enterprise only to be snuffed out by the consequences of insufficient hygiene on the part of her doctor, is profoundly moving.

Which is not to say that Ms. Hughes in any way idealizes or attempts to sanctify Mrs. Beeton or her work. Indeed, she devotes a fair amount of her book to exploring the extent to which the Victorian domestic goddess may have been responsible for making British cuisine the laughingstock it was to become in the 20th century.

There is certainly a decided stodginess to the dishes served up in her books, and no less than the influential Elizabeth David was inclined to blame Mrs. Beeton for the depredations of modern-day British cuisine. Ms. David and some other contemporary British food writers prefer an earlier avatar of British cooking, the neo-Georgian, early Victorian Eliza Acton, whose 1845 book, “Modern Cookery for Private Families,” exemplified a simpler, more natural school of cookery than what became popular in the rather ornate world of the mid-Victorians.

Ms. Hughes does not minimize Acton’s charms, but her final judgment on Isabella Beeton’s effect on British cookery displays the admirable fairness, judiciousness and crisp phrasing that are hallmarks of this book:

“Yet to be fair to Beeton, when it came to those ‘plain family dinners’ where there was no one to impress, she continued to suggest down-to-earth choices such as boiled leg of pork, stewed eels, and mutton cutlets. Whether the mistress of the house and her staff put quite as much effort into these workaday dishes remains a moot point and it is here, believe some food historians, that a whole body of experience and knowledge about indigenous British cookery began to drain away.

“From this point it was a short hop to the rissoles and lumpy rice pudding that were popularly supposed to characterize British home and institutional cooking for most of the twentieth century.

“But blaming all this on Mrs. Beeton is quite wrong. If she does anything it is to hold up a mirror to history, showing us what passed for common kitchen lore in the mid-nineteenth-century British kitchen. If we do not like what we see, insisting on identifying it as the precise moment when British cookery fell out of Eden and was damned for ever, then we need to think harder about how history happens and, more importantly, how it gets recorded. Confusing the messenger with the message really isn’t fair.”

Indeed, a beneficial consequence of this splendid biography of Isabella Beeton may well be that readers whose interest has been piqued by its contents will go out and get hold of a copy of her “Book of Household Management.” Quite apart from its virtues as an instructional manual for 19th-century housewives, it is quite simply a marvelous historical document. For those of us who do not have to cope with domestic servants, the complexity of dealing with a house full of them may summon up feelings that range from envy to schadenfreude to a sense of liberation — to say nothing of a profound gratitude for labor-saving devices. And however stodgy and rich those gargantuan meals, they sure are fun to read about. So all manner of thanks are due Kathryn Hughes for reacquainting us with Isabella Beeton and her world.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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