A Little Pickle for the Husband

Michael Mason

  • Beeton's Book of Household Management by Isabella Beeton
    Southover, 1112 pp, £29.95, November 1998, ISBN 0 18 709621 X

Who needs a facsimile edition of Mrs Beeton, when you can buy a perfectly good modern edition? This sounds like a fair point, but it depends on a misconception: that the recipes in the modern books bearing the name ‘Mrs Beeton’ have some connection with the recipes in the book of 1861 entitled Beeton’s Book of Household Management. In fact there is no connection: something which was deplored even at the time of the centenary of publication 38 years ago, when Elizabeth David pointed out that the currently available Mrs Beeton didn’t contain a single recipe from the original. That this is an odd state of affairs does not of itself make a facsimile of the 1861 book an interesting object. People buy and use the modern Mrs Beeton with some feeling that the book enshrines venerable English cookery, but you don’t have to read Stalky and Co. in order to enjoy Mr Kipling’s exceedingly good cakes.

It would be different if the 1861 edition of Household Management had been an unusually important book in its own day, but at first glance this is not obviously the case. The branding process started early. Within a decade of Isabella Beeton’s death in 1865 the publishers Ward, Lock and Tyler had acquired an astonishing degree of control over the ‘Beeton’ name. Isabella’s widower Sam, who had been the original publisher of her book but was now bankrupted, lost in the courts the right to use his surname even for his own productions. At first, Ward, Lock and Tyler just tinkered with and added to Isabella Beeton’s text, but for the 1888 edition of Household Management most of the original was dumped, never to reappear. The few hints which the book had contained about the author and her life were suppressed.

Had she ever existed? Lytton Strachey in 1908 knew that she had, and, scenting a tempting Victorian morsel, tried and failed to unearth enough biographical material for a Life. By 1922, the question was being frankly asked in the columns of Notes and Queries. A correspondent in the Guardian replied that, yes, Mrs Beeton had existed – and then went on to give the facts of Eliza Acton’s life. The first biographies, a pair by Nancy Spain and Montgomery Hyde, appeared soon after the last war, and the reality of Isabella Beeton did then make some headway against the phantom. Today, many people know that she was a newly married woman in her early twenties when she compiled her immense text, and that she died at 29. Some also know that her background was almost Cockney, that she was brought up in the grandstand it Epsom race-course, that she was an energetic partner with Sam in his business ventures, and that she died of puerperal fever (her baby boy was one of two survivors from four births).

Yet the power of Ward, Lock and Tyler’s phantom – a dim and disembodied entity, but vaguely middle-aged, matronly and strait-laced – still asserts itself. Those who have an urge to connect the life and the work sometimes make the mistake of looking up in the family bookshelves or in a second-hand bookshop the work called Beeton’s Every-Day Cookery and Housekeeping Book, only to find themselves repelled by its opening 64-page section, ‘The Philosophy of Housekeeping’, a grim, disciplinarian list of 427 rules and timed steps by which the routine of the household and of each servant should be structured. At this point the goodwill engendered by Isabella’s story is liable to dissipate – which is very unfair, since ‘The Philosophy of Housekeeping’ (so alien to the spirit of Household Management) was one of Ward, Lock and Tyler’s first substantial additions to the property which had fallen into their hands.

How important was the original edition of Mrs Beeton? It was not mentioned, as far as I know, in any published or unpublished comment of the day. But this must be an accident of fate, because the sales of Household Management in the quarter-century or so during which it survived more or less unscathed tell a very different story. Up until 1888 it sold 468,000 copies. This is a large figure, even if it was exceeded by cookery books which were lower in price and aimed at labouring families. Household Management cost 7/6d and was aimed at families earning at least £300 per annum (Isabella herself achieved very large sales with cheap selections from the original). Even if we assume that in 1888 those who had been earning at least £300 p.a. in 1861 had been completely replaced by a new generation, 468,000 is a saturation sale. That is to say, 234,000 approximates to the total number of families enjoying this kind of income in the last third of the 19th century. No one has been able to calculate the figure precisely (rather embarrassingly, we don’t know how big the Victorian middle and upper classes were), but it has to be somewhere in this region.

Isabella Beeton’s Household Management was probably less common only than the Bible, Shakespeare and the poems of Scott in better-off homes. Does that mean it has something to tell us about life in those homes – and if so, how are we to use it? What do books about cookery and housekeeping, of any period, tell us about contemporary realities? Certainly not the strict truth about the way people prepare their food and run their domestic affairs. In fairness, however, they don’t purport to do that. Instead, they claim to explain to their readers how to achieve certain results which are taken to be apt for their way of life. There is a strong element of hypothesis on the part of the author, and of aspiration on the part of the reader. Hence what look like instructions are not really instructions at all – or not the equivalent of the ones in the manual that comes with a new video-recorder. Only when the reader decides to try a recipe does the grammar of a cookbook cease to be an empty grammar, and its mass of imperative sentences cease to be illusory imperatives. Until that time, the purpose of these sentences is to tempt, to propose, to help the reader to envisage.

When the modern reader makes the transition from merely dreaming along with Jane Grigson or Delia Smith to trying a recipe, the imperatives resume their familiar role. But this cannot have been the case with a book such as Household Management, or not for much of the time. How did the following sentence function? ‘Send [the pancakes] to table, and continue to send in a further quantity.’ What is the role of Isabella’s advice on how ‘expeditiously’ to arrange cooked Brussels sprouts in the form of a pineapple? Given her relatively élite readership, the person following the instructions can hardly ever have been the person who read them in a preliminary, nonimperative way: how then are we to imagine them being transmitted from mistress to servant? Were they read out, or copied out, or made available by a loan or gift of the book itself? How did this great compilation of directions about everything from pickling walnuts to moulding jellies, from dressing pigs’ fry to boiling eggs, fit into middle and upper-class domestic practice?

Further puzzles arise when one considers what the book contains besides recipes. Advice on running a household and rearing children, as well as on medical and legal matters, accounts for a fair proportion of the book’s total length. As its reputation would have it, recipes (more than 1500 of them) are what it mainly consists of. But in among the recipes is a very large amount of non-instructional material in the form of headnotes and digressions. These passages – they make up perhaps a quarter of this part of the book – cover all sorts of subjects: life-science, geology, animal and plant husbandry, anthropology, classical and Biblical allusions, historical anecdotes, literary quotations.

Just before the thoroughly à nos moutons recipe for Mutton Cutlets with Mashed Potatoes, Isabella offers a little cento of quotations under the heading, ‘The Poets on Sheep’. ‘Everyone,’ she observes in the course of this, ‘is familiar with the sheep-shearing scene in Thomson’s Seasons.’ There were jocular complaints, during this period, about the intellectual pretensions of servants, but servants are surely not embraced in this ‘everyone’. Again, it seems that one must think of the book being used in different ways: a mistress reading it in her way, and a cook reading or otherwise receiving it in hers.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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