Who was Isabella Beeton?
The ‘Isabella’ part of the name might not be familiar but many people have heard of ‘Mrs Beeton’, the Victorian lady who compiled the then best-selling book of household management advice.
But who was Mrs Beeton?
It’s easy to have the impression that she was a rosy-cheeked, suitable plump, grandmotherly old lady who shared her years of experience of cooking and managing a home.
But that’s an erroneous idea. Although we might be forgiven if we thought that the picture on the right shows woman approaching her fifties (or there already), Isabella Beeton died when she was twenty eight years old.
What’s more, she knew little about household management and even less about cooking. Plus, it’s suggested that her early death was due to syphilis.
So how did Mrs Beeton become the last word in household cookery?
In 1856, when she was twenty years old, Isabella Mayson married Samuel Beeton. He was six years older and already a publisher. One of his early successes was The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, and soon Isabella was writing articles for the publication.
She was still only twenty one years old when she started working on the book that became her legacy.
Far from writing the book, she compiled information from other sources. As a modern married woman, she employed a maid who was another source of the recipes she featured in her eventual household guide.
The impression is that she was the mistress of a large estate with many servants,with frequent dinner parties and living a life of style and perfect organisation and planning. This was fr from the truth. Isabella had been one of twenty one children and began writing almost as soon as she had been married. The young couple lived in a modest suburban home with just the one maid.
The recipes in the book are strange. and do not reflect the way that the Victorians used to eat. Fish was invariably cooked in vinegar. When vinegar wasn’t required for cooking fish, it was replaced by lemon juice. What’ wrong with that? Well, we might add squeeze of lemon juice to a fish dish and serve wedge on the side but Mrs Beeton’s recipe for stewed plaice required a whole pint of lemon juice. (It’s hardly surprising that she had what was termed ‘delicate stomach) if this was the sort of dish she was eating).
Pasta, she claimed, should be cooked for almost two hours.Her first recipe for a Victoria sponge cake was so bad that it didn’t include the necessary eggs. Cabbage, she claimed, should be cooked for an hour. She was also not above advertising. Regarding steel knives and acidic dishes, she wrote ‘these are liable to impart to it a very disagreeable flavour’ so her answer was purchasing electro-plated goods, preferably those from ‘Messrs Slack of the Strand where they can be had from a guinea upwards’.
Did Mrs Beeton have syphilis?
Isabella had several miscarriages. (It’s not known exactly how many). Her two first children died when they were babies. Some people believe that this, and her early death, were due to her having contracted syphilis from her husband. It was common in those days for the doctors of people who belonged to the Beetons’ social strata to disguise the cause of death, should it actually be something less than respectable. Samuel himself only lived to be forty six.
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