Thursday, 10 August 2017

Read in 2017 - 26: Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management

Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management 
by Isabella Beeton 

This tome, originally published in 1861, contains nearly 2000 pages - a true door-stopper! I read it as a free ebook on my kindle, though, so it did not unduly weigh down my handbag. It accompanied me on my train trips for many weeks, and I did not read each and every word of it. 

The overall reading was interesting, fascinating, sometimes even funny - rarely deliberately so, I must admit. 
The book is neatly sorted into different parts dealing with subjects such as what each household member's tasks should be (the male head of household being conspicuously absent from the list of tasks), how each of these tasks should be done, general remarks about management of house, kitchen, gardens, stables, hen houses etc., plus a large part with recipes for all meals and all purposes. 
There is also a chapter dealing with illnesses and injuries, and another one about bringing up children. 

Throughout the book it is emphasized that most of the advice is suitable for households of a moderate size. When larger establishments are addressed, it is always specifically stated. 
In the recipe part, the various fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, eggs (and the respective animals they come from) are meticulously described, including their countries of origin, seasonal availability and how to choose the best of each on the market or from the grocer's. That part - the recipes - was the one I flicked through rather quickly, only stopping when a particular dish or description caught my attention (such as the one for Yorkshire pudding).. 
Most interesting was to note how everything was made from scratch in most households. For instance, if a recipe for a pudding required gelatine, that recipe pointed towards another one on how to make gelatine from bones, and so on. 

The chapters about servants' work were eye-opening - or they would have been, had I not been reading other books before about what life used to be like for maids and footmen. Frequently, the author refers to the fact that servants are human beings, too, and a lot on how they perform their work depends on how they are lead - on the mistress of the house. That, I am sure, was a novel idea to many readers at the time, who probably saw servants as an inferior class of sub-humans, not much better (if that) than animals. 

Victorians were obsessed with cleanliness, soemthing I find most interesting considering that the times immediately preceding the Victorian era were not exactly famous for high standards personal hygiene and progress in medicine. The number of tasks (and frequency with which they are advised to be performed) involving cleaning, scrubbing, washing, scouring etc. is astonishing - and of course most of it was supposed to be done by servants. 

To give you an idea of what the book is like, here is a quote: "I have always thought that there is no more fruitful source of family discontent than a housewife's badly-cooked dinners and untidy ways." 

The book has its own wikipedia-article here. According to the article, Isabella Beeton was only 21 when she started working on the book. She lived from 1836 to 1865 and, before her death at not yet 29 years old, she gave birth to four children. 
Also from the wikipedia article is the following information: It was probably found in more homes than any other cookery book, and was probably the most often consulted, in the years between 1875 and 1914. In 2012 the food economist for the British television period drama Downton Abbey described Beeton's book as an "important guide" for the food served in the series.

When I read that last sentence, I nodded inwardly, because while I was reading the book, I often thought how much this book would be useful to anyone who is writing a novel set in Victorian England, or researching the matter for other purposes. It is definitely one I am not going to delete from my kindle, now that I have read it, but will keep for further reference.


  1. I am in awe of your reading all of this book! I've had it from the library, years ago, and dipped into sections I thought would interest me, but reading the entire book is a real accomplishment. Do you think there is anything in it which will influence your own behavior?

    1. You must have had one of the newer editions from the library, I suppose; from the wikipedia entry I have learned that the book is still in print and has been published in revised editions many times.
      Actually, hardly anything of the 1861 version is applicable to my way of life today. Some general principles apply always, such as making sure one's guests enjoy themselves and their food when one entertains at home, but I have been acting on such timeless principles anyway.

  2. This rings a bell and think I must have heard of the book before, although I can't recall the context. I suppose I may have come across references to it in period literature; or possibly in some Downton Abbey context. (I think I did read a couple of books on life at the "real Downton" estate.)

    1. The wikipedia entry says that Beeton's book (in all ist reincarnations) was often referenced to in other books, for instance in a Sherlock Holmes novel (if I remember correctly). You read a lot, so I am not surprised that the name rings a bell with you.

  3. "Badly cooked dinners and untidy ways" wonder my family is so discontent!

    1. Now you are just being silly, Kay :-D

  4. There was a copy in my Maternal Grandmother's house and my Mother had a 'Mrs Beaton' but I think it was just the cookery book. It had a grey cover with blue print. I can remember that.