The secret life of Mrs Beeton

Kathryn Hughes takes ten pieces of advice from Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management and asks whether the domestic doyenne was speaking from experience…

This article was first published in the July 2006 issue of BBC History Magazine

The journalist and writer Mrs Isabella Beeton (1836–65). (Hulton Archive/Getty I
The journalist and writer Mrs Isabella Beeton (1836–65). (Hulton Archive/Getty I

Most of us think of Mrs (Isabella) Beeton as a middle-aged matron with decades of kitchen experience. So it’s a surprise to learn that she was just 21 when she started writing her now-famous Beeton’s Book of Household Management in 1859, and had only been keeping house for 12 months. Isabella gave the impression of a well-to-do lady presiding over an affluent and well-run home, whereas in fact she was a girl from a lower-middle class background battling everything from poverty to disease. And far from being middle-aged, she died at the age of just 28. Here, Kathryn Hughes looks at ten pieces of advice from Mrs Beeton’s book…

 

1) ‘Early rising is one of the most essential qualities’

Isabella and her husband Sam were indeed early risers, to the point of eccentricity. They both seem to have got up at about 6am before immediately catching the early train from Pinner into London, where Sam, a publisher, had his office. The other commuters disliked having a lady present since it meant they could neither swear nor smoke. Sam often missed the last 
train back and, rumour has it, once walked the whole way home, about 13 miles. Isabella would regularly leave his supper for him on the stove, having long since gone to bed.

 

2) ‘Cold or tepid baths should be employed every morning’

When the Beetons moved into their semi-detached house on a brand new housing estate in Pinner in 1856, there was no bath. Baths with running water were new-fangled, and even considered dangerous. Most people made do with a washstand in their bedroom. Isabella, though, was adamant that she wanted a bath and so an extra cistern had to be installed on the first floor to accommodate her modern tastes. Descendants of Mrs Beeton were brought up on the story that the reason two of her children died is that she subjected them to too many cold dips.


Illustrations of decorative pies from Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management, 1861. (Credit: Culture Club/Getty Images)

3) ‘Friendships should not be hastily formed, nor the heart given at once to every 
newcomer’

Mrs Beeton gives her readers strict guidelines for sociability. The moment a young matron moves into a new neighbourhood, she should make a courtesy call on her neighbours. In return, she should expect to be “at home” several times a week. No-one should bring their children or their dog with them, and gossiping about your husband’s shortcomings is strictly forbidden. In fact, Isabella was not very sociable and there’s no evidence that she ever made a morning call. Perhaps because she was the eldest girl in a tribe of 21 children, she spent most of the time socialising within her vast clan. Her best friends were her sisters Bessie and Esther, who remained fiercely loyal even after her marriage. They blamed her husband Sam for her early death at 28, declaring that he’d made her over-work on the Book of Household Management.

 

4) ‘Hospitality is a most excellent virtue’

As a young engaged girl, Isabella loathed dinner parties, referring to them as “these formal feeds which I abhor”. She was quite clear that “a good dance is much more in my line” and loved nothing better than when the carpet was rolled back in her parents’ Epsom house and the music began. There’s no record of the real Mrs Beeton ever giving any dinner parties and, anyway, she hardly had the resources. In 1860, when they were 24 and 29, Isabella and Sam left their Pinner house, probably because they couldn’t afford even the modest rent. Instead they camped out in two rooms above Sam’s office in the Strand. The office was only a few paces away from some of the most notorious slums in the country – hardly the kind of area to which you would invite your friends for supper.


Supper, from an 1892 edition of Beeton’s book – but she could never afford to entertain on such a grand scale. (Hulton Archive)

5) ‘Charity and Benevolence are duties which a mistress owes to herself as well as to her fellow-creature’

Isabella did indeed have a social conscience. In the very hard winter of 1858 she cooked up each week nine gallons of “Useful Soup for Benevolent Purposes” which she distributed at her back door to local needy families. The soup’s ingredients included a few bones, an ox cheek, salt and an ounce of black pepper. Whether the poor of Pinner ever came back for second helpings is not recorded.

 

6) ‘A housekeeping book should invariably be kept, and kept punctually and precisely’

Sam Beeton was a reckless businessman, borrowing too much and over-spending wildly. In the last weeks of Isabella’s life in 1865 it became clear he faced bankruptcy. By contrast, Isabella seems to have been a thrifty housekeeper. In a diary from 1860, she wrote down everything that she and Sam spent on food before crossing through each item, as though she was keeping track of expenditure. If she had not died prematurely she might have wrested Sam’s company back into profit. As it was he went bankrupt in 1866 and had to sell the highly profitable Book of Household Management to another company which reaped its vast profits over the next 150 years.

 

7) ‘Excellence in the art of cookery, as in all other things, is only attainable by practice and experience’

Isabella had been cooking for just a year when she first started compiling the 2,000 recipes that appear in the Book of Household Management. With the exception of the Soup for Benevolent Purposes (see above) she copied all her recipes from earlier cookery books, some of them dating back to the 17th century. She did, however, improve their lay-out, by listing all the ingredients at the start and giving exact cooking times. All the same, if she had been alive today she might have been prosecuted 
for plagiarism.


The title page from the 'Book of Household Management', which would run to many editions. (Mary Evans Picture Library)

8) ‘The number of male domestics in a family varies according to the wealth and position of the master’

Mrs Beeton gives precise instructions to the mistress of the house about how to deal with a whole fleet of servants from the butler and the cook down to the scullery maid and the stable lad. In fact Isabella never employed more than a single maid-of-all-work and a nursemaid. Footmen and cooks were only for the wealthy, the kind of people who were unlikely to need to thumb through her book for tips on how to deal with their staff. Beeton included this material about what went on in the best circles as aspirational “domestic porn” over which her more humble readers could sigh and dream.

 

9) ‘The nursery is of great importance in every family’

Isabella Beeton returned from her 1856 honeymoon pregnant. Her baby boy died at just three months old. The next year was filled with miscarriages, before she gave birth again in 1859. Sadly this child died aged three. It seems likely that Sam, who admitted to sleeping with a prostitute before he married, had passed on syphilis. It was only once five years had passed from her infection that Isabella was able to give birth to healthy children. Another boy followed in 1863 and lived until his 80s. In February 1865 Isabella was to give birth for the last time. The boy was healthy, but within hours Isabella was sick and shivery. She had contracted puerperal fever from the doctor who had delivered her baby (he had not taken the proper precaution of washing his hands in chloride of lime) and died an agonising death just a week later.

 

10) ‘All women are likely at some point to be sick nurses and should prepare themselves as much as possible’

Sam Beeton was wracked with ill-health throughout his short life, dying 12 years after Isabella at the age of just 46. When Sam dropped hints about his illness to friends, it was clear that he was referring to venereal disease picked up from a prostitute. After Isabella died in 1865 he started to display all the symptoms of end-stage syphilis, which include mania, recklessness and sexually inappropriate-behaviour. He published pornography, as well as putting out publications offensive to the royal family. He also embarked on an orgy of unwinnable court cases which drained what little resources still remained. It is perhaps lucky that Mrs Beeton never got to see him in such a pitiful state nor found her nursing skills put to test.

Dr Kathryn Hughes is author of The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton (4th Estate, 2006)

We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Cookies perform functions like recognising you each time you visit and delivering advertising messages that are relevant to you. Read more here