By Guest Author: Anne Lesley
Mrs Beeton is thought of as the first cooking goddess, but there is so much more to her than that.
Isabella Mayson was born on 12 March 1836, at 24 Milk Street, Cheapside in London, the family later moved to Epsom.
Her father died young and her mother remarried making her the oldest child with many siblings and step siblings, and being the oldest child she was responsible for baby-sitting and generally looking after her younger charges. It is during these years that she would have gained knowledge of household management.
In 1851 Isabella was sent to Heidelberg in Germany for 2 years to be educated and during this time she became a skilled pianist and fluent in German and French.
Following her return in 1854 she spent time in London visiting family and friends. It was here that she met handsome and striking Samuel Orchart Beeton, a wealthy publisher of books and magazines. He had also been born on Milk Street and his family was known to Isabella’s mother.
Isabella and Samuel’s year long courtship was carried out mainly by letter, they did not have the opportunity to meet very often.
On 25 May 1856 Isabella wrote:
‘In a very short time you have the entire management of me, and I can assure you, you will find in me a most docile and willing pupil….We shall get on merrily as crickets’.
On 1 June she wrote:
‘You cannot imagine how I have missed you, and have been wishing all day that I were a bird that I might fly away and be at rest with you my own precious one’.
Isabella married Samuel Beeton on 10 July 1856 and they moved to Hatch End, London. There has been speculation that her step-father did not approve of the match as he did not attend her wedding, however this has not been proved. Her sisters did attend and act as bridesmaids.
The couple’s first child, a boy was born after nine months of marriage, but he died at only 3 months old. Isabella was also to suffer many miscarriages and still births during their marriage.
Isabella started to write articles about cooking and domestic management for Samuel’s publications. She spent much time writing at Samuel’s offices at a time when it was rare for women to work. Working was very much a male preoccupation with the women staying at home and looking after household affairs. This resulted in a successful professional and private life together.
Between 1859 and 1861 Isabella wrote a monthly supplement for The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine which sold for 3d.
In late 1861 these supplements were published in a single volume book.
The full original title was:
‘The Book of Household Management, comprising information for the Mistress, Housekeeper, Cook, Kitchen-Maid, Butler, Footman, Coachman, Valet, Upper and Under House-Maids, Lady’s-Maid, Maid-of-all-Work, Laundry-Maid, Nurse and Nurse-Maid, Monthly Wet and Sick Nurse, etc, etc, – also Sanitary, Medical, & Legal Memoranda: with a History of the Origin, Properties, and Uses of all Things Connected with Home Life and Comfort’.
In the Preface of the book Isabella writes:
‘I must frankly own, that if I had known, beforehand, that this book would have cost me the labour which it has, I should never have been courageous enough to commence it. What moved me, in the first instance, to attempt a work like this was the discomfort and suffering which I had seen brought upon men and women by household mismanagement…. Men are now so well served out of doors, at their clubs…. that in order to compete with the attraction of these places, a mistress must be thoroughly acquainted with the theory and practice of cookery, as well as be perfectly conversant with all the other arts of making and keeping a comfortable home’.
The book had over 1100 pages with 900 of them containing recipes. Many people believe Isabella did not write many of the articles and recipes herself so much as research, edit and compile them.
The book has since been called ‘The most famous English cookery book ever published’, however it is so much more than that and has given us a significant insight into Victorian domestic life.
The book covered every conceivable area of household management with reliable information including fully illustrated recipes, treatment and duties of household staff, staff pay, etiquette, rearing and management of children, medicines, fashion advice, animal husbandry, use of local and seasonal produce and a chapter specifically on cooking for invalids.
It is believed to be the first book to write recipes as we see them today, with the ingredients listed at the top followed by the preparation and cooking instructions.
Chapter 1 The Mistress, Isabella writes:
‘As with the Commander of an Army, or the leader of any enterprise, so is it with the mistress of a house. Her spirit will be seen through the whole establishment; and just in proportion as she performs her duties intelligently and thoroughly, so will her domestics follow in her path’.
Chapter 2 The Housekeeper
‘As second in command in the house….the housekeeper must consider herself as the immediate representative of her mistress, and bring to the management of the household, all those qualities of honesty, industry, and vigilance….as if she were at the head of her own family’.
The book was especially popular with middle class Victorian families who found it invaluable in the running of their household. It sold 60,000 copies in the year after publication and close to 2 million by the end of the decade.
It is a wonder, how the Victorians managed without it.
Isabella and Samuel were very content and happy in their lives however this happiness was to be cut short following the birth of their fourth child in January 1865.
Isabella became very ill the day after the birth. She had contracted Puerperal fever and died 8 days later on 6 February 1865, aged only 28.
It is now believed that she died of the syphilis she contracted from her husband on the night of their wedding.
Her husband wrote to a friend shortly after her death:
‘My agony is excessive, but I have hours of calm and quiet which refresh me and enable me to meet the dreadful grief that well nigh overpowers me, and renders me unable to move or stir’.
Isabella Beeton may have died young but she produced something during that short life which has been read through generations and has left a legacy that will live for generations to come.