A Little Pickle for the Husband
- 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.
And why include this great body of interpolated material anyway? Some of the scientific information is intended as a necessary background to the preparation of tasty and healthy food, but much of it has no practical relevance (a discussion of the sense-organs of fish, for example). It was admittedly nightmarishly difficult for the scientific populariser to keep abreast of biology in the 1860s, but Isabella never revised her passages about fermentation, pathogens and the design of animals; never cited Pasteur or Darwin. Perhaps all this information is there mainly to give the impression that something serious was being offered.
Who were the women who used Household Management (or, to be more precise, the readers envisaged by Isabella Beeton), such that all this discursive writing fitted their tastes and aspirations? Arnold Palmer, the author of a lively 1952 history of mealtimes, Movable Feasts, suggests that they were not ‘steady-going, comfortably-off’ professional families, but rather ‘the prospering, scrambling, climbing world of merchants, manufacturers, financiers and politicians ... competitive, snobbish, parvenu, purse-proud, vulgar, earnest and indefatigable’. Palmer’s guess is useful because it is certainly wrong, and also because it might contain a grain of truth. The readership of Household Management extended well beyond his vulgar plutocracy: there were far fewer than 468,000 families of the sort he describes in the years between 1862 and 1888. That the Beetons themselves were aiming at a wider audience is evident from the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, a pioneering monthly magazine for women, founded and edited by Sam Beeton (on his own at first, later jointly with Isabella), which carried the first version of Household Management in the form of a serial supplement. The magazine pitched itself at a broad social range, and in its columns often gave explicit attention to domestic life at the bottom of the bourgeois ladder – that is, to life on around £300 per annum.
The magazine sheds light on the women – and the domestic routines – Household Management was seeking to assist and influence. To start with, it is apparent that domestic service was available down to the lowest levels of the bourgeoisie, but not usually on a generous scale. Many households had to make do with the time which a busy maid-of-all-work could spare for cooking. This echoes what historians have deduced about domestic service in the 19th century: the total servant workforce was growing until the 1870s, but was generally unspecialised and was spread very thinly. There were never more than a hundred thousand dedicated ‘cooks’ in 19th-century England. Quite well-to-do households got by with small numbers of servants, often supplemented by the unpaid labour of the unmarried women in the family. The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine drew attention to this silent levy on the energies of ‘dependent’ female relatives. To the extent that their contribution was supervisory and clerical, the magazine claimed, they could be found doing chores in some of the country’s wealthiest families.
Even in households cushioned by incomes of at least £300, the wife, or a relative, often worked shoulder to shoulder with an unskilled servant in the kitchen. When there was a specialist cook at hand to prepare the dishes sent to the table, the family member would still do much preliminary work. These various kinds of involvement in kitchen and larder are referred to in Household Management. ‘Her mistress will assist’ the maid-of-all-work ‘very often’ in cooking dinner, Isabella Beeton says. Wives ‘who have sufficient time and convenience’ should personally do the bottling and pickling. Every wife should at least be a quartermaster who acts as a back-up to the cook, organising the ingredients so that she does not have to ‘hunt all over her cupboard for the ketchup the cook requires, or the pickle the husband thinks he should like a little of with his roast-beef or mutton-chop ... the Embden groats or arrowroot to make one of her little boys some gruel’. It is easy to imagine the family copy of Household Management spending the great part of its life in the kitchen, taken up, like other utensils, by mistress and servant alike.
Perhaps it sometimes even belonged to the servant. In a humorously blatant puff for the book in the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine the newly-wed heroine of a short story is smitten by its charms: ‘it’s so cheap that anyone can buy it, and so I hope a great number of servants, as well as mistresses, will.’ But the Beeton publicity machine also latched onto a story in the Athenaeum (which it thereafter quoted on the book’s title-page) telling of a cook who was lent a copy by her mistress, and who returned it with a verdict of ‘excellent for beginners’. This seems more plausible than the notion that servants shelled out perhaps 2 per cent of their annual wage to buy the book for themselves. Given the distribution of the Victorian domestic workforce, a large number, probably the majority, of food-preparing servants were low-paid ‘beginners’, all-purpose domestics who could have been helped by Mrs Beeton at every turn, perhaps even after they had been many years in service.
Of course young wives, or Esther Summer-son-style dependent relatives, were equally ignorant when they first took up their duties of household management. But they at least had a copy of the book; they read it; and they were the normal conduit by which the knowledge in it reached their employees. There was an educational potential here, both of self and of others, which the book’s encyclopedic design reinforced. The intellectual dignity inherent in successful domestic management, cookery included, was a great theme of the Beeton press. ‘As with the commander of an army, or the leader of an enterprise, so it is with the mistress of a house,’ runs the opening sentence of Household Management. It is only the first of several magniloquent formulations in the book’s introductory pages. ‘A woman without logic,’ Sam Beeton declared in the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, ‘and a house without a home are two sides of the same unpleasant fact.’
This was not the old talk of ‘separate spheres’, a weasel-worded concept which granted autonomy to women in terms which simultaneously implied enclosure and constraint. For the Beetons, time had moved decisively on: if modern housewives ‘know no book but the cookery-book, and find no more congenial sphere than the kitchen, they are an incarnate anachronism’. Isabella’s talk of ‘the commander of an army’ and ‘the leader of an enterprise’ is not just figurative: household management has a definite connection with wider activities – ‘those who can manage a little well are most likely to succeed in their management of larger matters.’ She herself illustrated the point by successfully running the Beeton publishing operation with her husband. There are signs that Isabella thought of the servant-employing woman’s role as one enabling her to empower (as we would now term it) her fellow women. She writes forcefully about the vulnerable situation of the maid-of-all-work, arguing that she should if possible be trained up by the mistress to a more dignified and secure rank of domestic service.
All this is hard to reconcile with Palmer’s belief in the book’s ‘snobbish, parvenu, purse-proud, vulgar’ constituency, but what of his accusation that the readership was joylessly acquisitive and materialistic? More than forty years ago, in Prosperity and Parenthood (1954), J.A. Banks performed a classic analysis of middle-class consumption in the central decades of Victoria’s reign and concluded that such families were purchasing more of everything. He saw this acquisitiveness as a result not of changed attitudes, but of changed circumstances: incomes were rising, and prices falling. There was undoubtedly some serious economic pinching at the poorer end of the middle class, however. Patricia Branca has speculated that shabby gentility was in fact the condition of many readers of Mrs Beeton and similar advice literature: in other words, that such books were titillating their audience’s appetite for a consumption which they could ill-afford.
In those circumstances, consumption might indeed have been a pretty joyless affair. But historians have also tended, like the priggish Arnold Palmer, to doubt whether the middle class got real pleasure out of material acquisition even when it did not hurt their pockets. A wealthy stockbroker who bought an oil-painting, or his wife choosing a fine dinner-service, the argument runs, didn’t value these things as objects, but only insomuch as they signalled the family’s status. This line of thought has recently been challenged by two historians interested in the link between reverie and reality which the acquisition of some desired commodity involves. Romanticism taught 19th-century citizens to value their fantasies, Colin Campbell argues in The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism (1987); while Lori Anne Loeb, in Consuming Angels (1994), makes a connection between 19th-century manufacturers learning how to use advertising to prompt the fantasies which their products could fulfil and middle-class consuming women relishing their power to make dreams come true. Oscar true. Oscar Wilde got there before either Campbell or Loeb when he spoke of the ‘strange mixture of romance and finance’ which is the bourgeoisie.
Isabella Beeton could on occasion think in a thoroughly consumerist fashion. She was probably responsible for the increasing interest in fashion and dress on the part of the Englishwomen’s Domestic Magazine (accompanied by increasingly eye-catching illustrations), and for the magazine’s awareness that the questions ‘what shall we wear?’ and ‘what shall we eat?’ are ‘nearly allied’. There is more commodification of food and cooking in Household Management than we would find in a modern cookbook, with much detail about kitchen utensils and some allusions to patent food-products (manufacturers’ and retailers’ names unblushingly supplied). The book itself was a satisfying object, both handy and handsome: the admirable new facsimile keeps the small and blockish dimensions of the original, and also allows the reader to enjoy the 50 colour-plates of 1861 (state-of-the-art illustrations in their day). Although Isabella insists that ‘the wholesomeness of food ... is a matter of much greater moment than the appearance it presents on the table,’ she concedes that since ‘dine we must ... we may as well dine elegantly.’ She is not backward with advice about purely ornamental pastries and jellies, and shows a certain nostalgia for the fabulous desserts of Georgian times: ‘if there be any poetry at all in meals, or the process of feeding, there is poetry in the dessert.’
In much the greater part of her text, however, the realities of Victorian foodstuff-production and what seem to be Isabella’s own inclination and interests, pull in the opposite direction. ‘First catch your hare’ is an instruction that has been misattributed to Mrs Beeton and several of her forbears. Isabella Beeton’s readers were likely to gather only vegetables and fruit (and at several points in the text she evidently imagines this happening), but animals or parts of animals arrived in the kitchen in a less dressed state than they do now, and at the table often displayed their origins: though the meat would have been purchased from a butcher, the 1861 illustration of roast hare essentially shows a flayed animal, with subcutaneous tail, ears and mouth still intact, squatting on a serving-dish. It’s hard not to think about Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) when browsing through Household Management. Carroll traded comically on the habit of mind that looks through the dish to the animal. What is a ‘mock turtle’ like? At what point do whiting get their breadcrumbs, and their tails in their mouths? Do they swim around like that?
We don’t like thinking about the living reality of our animal foodstuffs, and feel only a sense of dislocation when we are plunged from an entrancing description of pig-herding customs in Austria to a recipe for pork chops – which is one reason the book’s encyclopedic design seems so curious to us. Isabella’s seamless praise of the Aylesbury Duck as fowl and food shows the book can take such transitions in its stride: ‘a universal favourite [whose] snowy plumage and comfortable comportment make it a credit to the poultry-yard, while its broad and deep breast, and its ample back, convey the assurance that your satisfaction will not cease at its death.’ Although we may make righteous noises about free-range poultry, few of us, probably, dwell on the process we are applauding, and certainly not with Isabella’s enthusiasm for all its phases. Her text contains some charming pieces of animal comedy – observantly fanciful but not sentimental; and its meticulous instructions about rearing and caring for hens surely flow from personal experience.
The frontispiece of Household Management seems to rebut emphatically the allegation that the book’s spirit is consumerist and unhedonistic. It is a coloured engraving with a title taken from a poem by Felicia Hemans, ‘The free, fair homes of England’, and showing a farmyard, in high summer, with fields beyond. In the foreground are some of the very ducks and chickens which Isabella will later escort admiringly to the table. Behind them a jovial farmer (in old-fashioned, even obsolete costume) dispenses refreshments to his harvesters, while others in the distance cheerfully bring in the last wagonload.
The scene is very far, almost absurdly far, from the villas in Ealing and Dulwich, and the terraced houses in Holloway and Kennington, where Household Management came to rest. The festive sentiments are seriously intended, however, and echoed in the text. By the standards of today’s cookbooks, Household Management may neglect to smack its lips over its recipes, but good food is seen as a central component of a happy household. At the outset, Isabella sets her face against the dismal view of housekeeping, regretting that ‘the performance of the duties of a mistress may, to some minds, perhaps seem to be incompatible with the enjoyment of life.’ It is notable that Household Management contains not a single reference to the Sabbath and its observances (Sam and Isabella were religiose but not church-going).
The pleasures yielded by the household have to do with play, affection, good-heartedness and heterosexual love. The most important qualities in a mistress are ‘good-temper ... cheerful[ness] ... a deep interest ... in the well-being of those who claim the protection of her roof ... gentleness’. Children should feel that ‘home is the happiest place in the world.’ The story about newly-weds in the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine gives a list of the satisfactions attendant on good food: a list which may be taken to include something not mentioned in the book – namely, marital sex. ‘Cooking,’ says the young husband, ‘means comfort, and pleasure, and good health, and good temper, and I don’t know what else besides – why it’s everything, is cooking. All the good in the world has always been done after a good dinner.’ If the historian John Tosh’s picture of Victorian masculinities is correct, Household Management was first published during a rather brief cultural moment when men were exceptionally satisfied with their absorption into a domesticity controlled by their wives.
It seems clear that Arnold Palmer’s ideas about Isabella’s readership are thoroughly undermined by the prima facie evidence. But we can countermine. In thinking about the frontispiece to Household Management, for example, we can recruit a formidable sapper of the 19th-century middle class, the early American sociologist Thorstein Veblen. If there is a lingering sense of the oddity of this clichéd and archaic image appearing at the beginning of a cookbook from the industrial age, Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class has a damaging explanation to offer. He was the Freud of the class system: mixing slippery and apparently overweening generalisations with disconcertingly astute bits of concrete evidence. The premise of his famous essay on the middle and upper classes is that they were giving new forms to ancient ways of displaying élite status; their mores were those of a power-conscious Bronze Age chieftain, in a modern guise. In support of this claim he noted the élite’s attachment to field sports, athletics and games, and military activity; why did they generally prefer hunting to reading, he asked, unless they were reliving a tribal way of life? The frontispiece can be seen as a comparable expression of nostalgia for a compact and territorially-based social arrangement, clearly stratified into superior and inferior ranks. Why in her text does Isabella Beeton twice refer to an obscure recent attempt to revive the art of falconry? Why does she lament that with the decline of blood sports ‘much of the romance of country life has passed away’?
Veblen identified two main methods by which ancient and modern élites signal their status. One is the well-known ‘conspicuous consumption’; the other is the less familiar but fertile notion of ‘conspicuous leisure’. Household Management cannot readily be convicted of favouring ‘consumption’ in a crudely ostentatious or materialistic form: Isabella’s sporadic references to the purely decorative qualities of her recipes are greatly outweighed by her emphasis on seasonality, naturalness and wholesomeness. She favours more delicacy and complexity in cooking than her readers may be accustomed to, but not more attention to display. Finally, she seems too strongly motivated by the quest for human pleasures in eating to fall foul of the accusation of conspicuous consumption.
The Theory of the Leisure Class did not deny the possibility that the 19th-century élite obtained pleasure from their acquired commodities. Of course they enjoy themselves, Veblen granted, in his sour way, but only because they have been taught to regard as pleasures ancillary features of the consuming activity. The results of Beetonesque womanly activity in the home are ‘pleasing to the sense of men trained in middle-class proprieties; but the taste to which these effects of household adornment and tidiness appeal is a taste which has been formed under the selective guidance of a canon of propriety that demands just these evidences of wasted effort.’
He does not mention food in this context, but would not have emerged empty-handed if he had trawled the Beetons’ work for support. The displacement of the sources of culinary pleasure away from the sensory does not always stop, for the Beetons, in areas such as love of family and kindliness (where it would be hard to argue that a ‘canon of propriety’ determines what we prize). The newly-married husband in the story specifies ‘comfort’ as an adjunct of cooking. What can he mean? The Athenaeum also thought that Household Management gave voice to a new ideal of ‘comfort’, which it called ‘one of the latest attainments of civilisation’. You might think that something physical was at issue here, but as the discussion develops physicality drains away:
the one point insisted upon in all works on household management is ... the necessity of having everything that depends on personal thought and care done as well as possible ... dinner may be of scraps, but those scraps must be made savoury ... It is ... management, that is the great requisite in procuring comfort ... When a man sees his table nicely set out, he believes in the goodness of his dinner.
Isabella Beeton prided herself especially on the sections of Household Management dealing with ‘cold meat cookery’ – i.e. scraps. Is her book really (as the testimony of the Athenaeum suggests) a celebration of culinary show without culinary substance? If so, this would not lay her open to the charge that she regarded food as a consumerist commodity. But neither would the alternative – that food involved a Romantic strain of hedonism, or the pleasure of turning dream into reality – strictly apply. Veblen gets closer. Isabella Beeton conceived of good cooking as a matter of supplementing the purely sensory side of eating: knowing ‘how to dine’, she wrote, ‘implies both the will and the skill to reduce to order, and surround with idealisms and graces, the more material conditions of human existence’. Food attended by ‘idealisms and graces’ seems to belong in Veblen’s category of culturally-relative domestic pleasures, which are ‘pleasing to the sense’ because they conform to ‘a canon of propriety’. Isabella Beeton shared the common 19th-century view that human history was a tale of the increasing ascendancy of the intellectual over the physical, and once cookery had been fitted into this paradigm there was an awkwardness in stressing its role as an enhancer of sensory experience.
The notion of ‘conspicuous leisure’ also finds a purchase in Household Management. Veblen claimed that the middle and upper classes employed servants not as a practical necessity – however much they might protest that this was their motive – but as a means of signalling status: in this instance their own ‘exemption from work’. With his usual strong-mindedness (or tendentiousness) he easily accommodated the objection that a great number of 19th-century men were not exempt from work at all – either because of a work ethic of personal industriousness, or because necessity chained them to an office job. Conspicuous leisure operated even at the lower, Pooterish end of the middle class, according to Veblen, through what he called ‘a curious inversion’ (a particularly Freud-like move on his part): ‘in this lower middle class there is no pretence of leisure on the part of the head of the household ... but the ... wife still carries on the business of vicarious leisure, for the good of the household and its master.’ For Veblen, a wife’s ‘domestic duties’ were another form of conspicuous exemption from real work, often reinforced by the ‘auxiliary’ signal of servants.
This is consistent with what can be deduced about the usage of Household Management. Tens of thousands of middle-class Victorian women worked hard at preparing food and meals. But the presence of a paid domestic allowed them to feel that their efforts were not merely menial, even if the domestic did not bring much time or knowledge to kitchen work, and often received all her instructions about cooking via her mistress. Families seem to have clung to the principle that they should have some kind of domestic service available across the full range of household duties, rather than concentrating this resource, as modern households tend to, on cleaning and childcare.
It could be objected that we have dispensed with the need for kitchen service in the 20th century by making cooking a less laborious task. Interestingly, the Victorians did not avail themselves of new kitchen technology when they might have done. The gas stove took years to find favour; the ordinary geared egg-beater was not invented until 1869. In general the idea that the home could be a site of technological advance seems to have been alien to them. Speculative pieces about the prospects for the bourgeois home were written in the 1870s (Leslie Stephen was the author of one), but none envisaged the elimination of servants.
A woman armed with her Household Management did gain dignity by being the superior party in the kitchen; and Isabella and Sam Beeton make this sound like a real advance for the sex – the bad old days of the wife wholly enclosed in her domestic duties are gone. Veblen would of course deny that women’s wish for self-esteem motivated them to employ servants in the kitchen, but we could accept that a need for self-esteem was important to middle-class women, while doubting that there was much substance to it. It seems clear that, as a matter of aspiration, the early 19th-century tendency towards an increasing demarcation of male and female domestic roles – as traced by Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall – swung back in the opposite direction after the mid-century. But if domestic practice was unchanged, what are we to make of the bold talk about the ‘incarnate anachronism’ of the kitchen-bound wife, and of the feast of miscellaneous learning offered up with the recipes in Household Management?
If nothing had changed, the Saturday Review of 1861, in its sardonic way, might have had a point: ‘in all this trouble and anxiety, so much worse than any that falls to the lot of men – [women] have only one help and consolation ... only one support to hold them up. They have the power of taking pleasure in talking about domestic economy. Terrible as it is to go through, it is charming to talk about.’ It would make sense if middle-class women in the 1860s and 1870s (a time when sexual equality was becoming an issue) had needed a new kind of discourse, more respectful of their mental capacities, to make palatable a still arduous domestic role. The Beetons were by no means the only commentators of the day who wrote about housework in the new honorific vein, but running through this talk is a disquieting emphasis on the second of those supposedly twin aspects of the subject: the mental and the manual. ‘None in their senses,’ Anne Gilchrist wrote in Macmillan’s in 1865, ‘would advocate or imagine possible a return to that engrossment in household duties’ which typified wives of two generations ago. The modern wife will handle these activities in ‘a lighter and more masterful way’. What this doesn’t mean, however (and this turns out to be Gilchrist’s main point), is any fastidious shunning of hard work in the kitchen, any namby-pamby protests on the lines of ‘What! to cook our own dinners! To spend half our time in the kitchen getting red faces, coarse hands and sour tempers!’ as she unamiably puts it.
It would seem to be the token of a woman less ‘engrossed’ by cooking than her forbears had been, that her cookery book contained large amounts of general information. But there is an inertness about these sections of Household Management which makes one doubt whether they were more than a sugaring of an old pill, intended to assuage old pains. ‘Everyone is familiar with the sheep-shearing scene in Thomson’s Seasons.’ It does say something important about women’s new aspirations in Late Victorian Britain that the remark could have been addressed to a housewife busily engaged in cooking mutton chops, or to a servant cooking the chops under her supervision. What it cannot be taken to indicate, however, is that women had actually achieved a new apportioning of effort and attention within their lives.