A homage to the Victorian woman who made housekeeping respectable

Review Biography


The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton

Kathryn Hughes

Alfred A. Knopf / 480 pages / $29.95

For those of you envisioning a summer curled up with Dickens, not People, savoring the reruns of Masterpiece Theatre, not Friends, grab The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton by Kathryn Hughes. Here is a window into the Victorian Age. It is the story of Isabella Beeton, British domestic diva, author of Beeton's Book of Household Management, reprinted endlessly since 1861.

Today in Britain, the Beeton name endures as a commercial symbol of home, touting everything from Cornish pastries to Microwaving with Mrs. Beeton. Many have been fooled into thinking "Mrs. Beeton" must be nothing more than a nom de plume. With unrestricted access to the Beeton archives, Hughes unravels the historical record.

Isabella Mayson Beeton, we're told, was one of 21 children, obliged "to share her mother with a series of exhausting babies who arrived almost yearly." It was a huge family even by Victorian standards. Isabella escaped by marrying the ambitious but struggling Samuel Beeton, a publisher. Partly out of financial necessity, Isabella began scribbling for his Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine, before launching a comprehensive manual on cooking and housekeeping that eventually made Sam Beeton solvent by its success.

She was writing at a time when active housekeeping was looked upon as a dreary chore by middle-class women. The horrors served at table, it was believed, were the main reason so many married men preferred to spend their evenings at the tavern. But instead of admonishing these hapless wives, already stressed by the tensions of industrial England, Mrs. Beeton empowered her audience with an efficient system that gave them a sense of accomplishment and pride. Rather than intimidating her reader with glamorous concoctions copied from French chefs at the British court (one legendary maestro made breakfast for 2,000 the day Queen Victoria was crowned), Mrs. Beeton stuck to down-to-earth choices such as stewed eels, boiled chicken, and A Good Sponge Cake.

Among the colored engravings was information about servants, whooping cough and the rearing of children - vital skills that made a wife's work as important as her husband's. In the end, perhaps Isabella Beeton's crowning achievement was to establish that the housewife was, in her words, "a person of far more importance in a community than she usually thinks she is."

There is a contemporary message here as well: the importance of the safety of our food and the business of being a woman. If, as Hughes states, customers flocking to organic supermarkets wonder where their meal is coming from, such longings for an agrarian world would not be so different from those expressed in Beeton's Book of Household Management. Isabella advised readers not to cook chickens that had been imprisoned in cages. The Mrs. Beeton diet, asserts Hughes, was healthier than the food consumed by the average British family today. In the decades that followed, as women began making their living in the world, they drew upon the skills that Mrs. Beeton taught their mothers - of organizing their environment so they could work in a systematic and productive way.

Sadly, Isabella Beeton did not live to see her book or name become a marketing phenomenon. Infected with syphilis (a gift from her husband), we are told, her "health, money and eventually life itself drained away, leaving others to profit from [Isabella's] spectacular misfortune." Even while feverish, Isabella continued to write. It was not until the last days of her life, while Sam pestered her with his banking troubles, that Isabella turned her face to the wall in despair.

She died in 1865, at age 28. Few records remain. She was, after all, "a young married woman of no particular fame or social cachet who had written a cookery book for her husband that was said to be doing rather well." Not enough, apparently, to merit an obituary in the local paper.

Hughes masterfully guides us through this Victorian saga with all the British talent of imparting a happy turn of phrase. The book is handsomely designed in true Alfred A. Knopf fashion - with lovely illustrations on thick cream paper with rough-cut edges. If you, like me, are burdened by shallow requests for "a good read" or by some excessive borrower, with a loud, nasal voice, demanding "something for the beach," quietly hand over a gift card to Barnes & Noble and turn 'em loose. Then slip back into the past.

Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is the author of "Mencken: The American Iconoclast."

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