Thursday, March 12, 2009

Isabella Beeton: "Wife and Fellow Worker"

Much has been written about Isabella Beeton and her "captured" style of Victorian English Cookery. It seems, everyone has an opinion. I don't choose to opine today although, I do choose to make note of Isabella's date of birth. Born Isabella Mary Mayson on March 12, 1836, in London, Isabella was the eldest of 21 children. Yes, that's twenty-one! It was a "blended" family. She was educated at Heidelberg and became an accomplished pianist before her marriage to wealthy publisher Samuel Orchart Beeton. The Secret Life of Mrs. Beeton, is obviously no longer a secret. It has been devitalized, scrutinized, publicized and commercialized all in the name of plagiarism.

"Wife and Fellow Worker"

The eldest of twenty-one siblings, it appears Isabella had many responsibilities before her marriage to Samuel Beeton in 1856. (she was barely 20, some accounts state she was 19) She was in charge of the organizing of the household, she supervised the caring of the sick and participated in some of the cooking. She also took pastry lessons, piano lessons and spoke German and French.

With letters of endearment, Samuel Beeton began seeking the affection of Isabella Mary Mayson in 1855. They were eventually married on July 10, 1856 at Epsom Parish Church. The wedding celebration took place at the childhood home of Isabella; the Grandstand at Epsom. The eight bridesmaids were draped in pale green, mauve and white. Each of Isabella's sisters had contributed to her bridal costume. "Presents were laid out between flowers in the reception room, the champagne flowed," and after a few hours the couple left Epsom and boarded the train to embark on their continental honeymoon.

Samuel Beeton, was an enterprising ambitious publisher, he published popular literature beginning with the first British edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1852. (There is a bit of discrepancy as to Sam's ethics concerning the "Readable Books" series. see NYT article below) He also had his hands in Beeton's Book of Garden Management(which was published after Isabella's death and later editions somehow began to include [Mrs.]) Among Sam's other "firsts" were The Sporting Life and The Boys' Own Magazine.

The Boy's Own Magazine was the first gender specific periodical published in 1855 by Samuel O Beeton, who had a vision for his magazine as moulder of empire builders. Priced at 2d monthly it was aimed at the youth of the middle classes, it was not intended for the working class. With an editorial team including Mayne Reid, W B Rands, Tom Hood and James Greenwood it was a successful and popular magazine with a circulation of 40,000. In its first publication items included: The Printers Boy, the story of Benjamin Franklin, Catching a Caymen in the Philippine Islands, The Tools of War, The Thousand and Second Tale a story by Edgar Allan Poe and Famous Places a travel series. source

As a husband and wife team; Isabella and Samuel had a productive marriage both at home and professionally. As I read through scores of online information, I was taken by the incredible organizational skills and eye for detail constantly cited about Isabella. At a time when few women worked, Isabella not only commuted to the office with Sam on a daily basis. She wrote, edited, researched and eventually assumed much of the responsibility for The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine: An Illustrated Journal Combining Practical Information, Instruction, and Amusement.

...Within a few months Isabella had taken over the household hints and cookery columns in Sam's magazine, her first articles appearing in April 1857. She added a third column on childcare - after all, she had been accustomed to looking after a new brother or sister every year, and the arrival of her own first baby did not interrupt the flow of work. Within a month of her debut she had evolved a characteristic style - brief, blunt and clear, supported by epigrams or proverbs, but rejecting the flowery diction with which Sam spun out his editorials.

Sadly their first child Samuel Orchart died of croup in August 1857 aged 3 months. Nevertheless, Isabella spent three years planning the Book of Household Management, and in September 1859, the month their second son, also named Samuel Orchart, was born, the first of 30 parts of her famous book was published issued along with the Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine. Sam assured readers that every recipe had been personally tested, and offered gold and silver watches as prizes to those who could drum up more subscribers. Isabella, anxious to show some general knowledge, researched diligently into the number of sheep in England and the feasibility of making cloth out of Jerusalem artichokes... excellent source

Sam may have been Isabella's ray of encouragement however, it was the mother of three's endless patience, determination and no-nonsense approach which fueled the reality. (Before the delivery of her fourth child, Isabella worked on Beeton’s Dictionary of Cookery, an abridged version of Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, up to a week before she died. She also started a magazine called The Queen (now called Harper’s & Queen).Her achievements in the book which bore her name included simplified cooking techniques, alphabetical recipe arranging, listings of estimated costs, clear, concise instructions and household management tips by which she will be eternally be remembered. She also found time to open a soup kitchen at her house in the winter of 1858 to feed poor children.

The idea for The Queen, the Ladies' Newspaper (still in print as Harpers & Queen; see below) may have indeed been initiated by Isabella, although most articles I have seen give Samuel Beeton credit as editor. She spoke French and was able to translate fashion articles and desired to include fashion plates in the magazine. It is said fashion updates were obtained by balloon during the Seige of Paris and the Beetons had made many formal contacts while visiting. Some even credit another "first" with the launching of The Queen. The "offering to readers of ready-cut paper patterns of the latest designs by post." "For every outfit illustrated in the plates, a pattern was supplied on request, ready cut and tacked."

The Queen was first published on 7 September 1861 from offices at 248 Strand, London and cost 6d. It was described as 'An Illustrated Journal and Review' and a 'Ladies Newspaper and Court Chronicle'. Jocelyn Stevens* wrote that permission was given by Queen Victoria to use the title and that the magazine was "aimed at those people who naturally attended Court functions, and those who would love to have been invited..." The first proprietor was Samuel Beeton source
The Queen Magazine was one of several English fashion magazines that were strongly influenced by French magazines. This is in part because fshion magzines primarily focused on women's fashions. One of the most important English magazines was the The Queen Magazine. It primarily focused on ladies fashions, but had some information about children's fashion as well. Quuen was founded by Samuel Beeton (1861). It was as the name suggest from the beginning a magazine for ladies, but not at first a fashion magazine. Beeton founded a a weekly society newspaper with very limited fashion information. Beeton focused on high society and covered London social events in detail. There were also articles on occupations, literature, and other inoffensive amusements considered to be suitable for proper ladies. The full original title of Beeton's magazine title was The Queen, the Ladies' Newspaper. Beeton did not run the magazine very long. He sold Queen to William Cox in 1862. (source below)
One of the longest running English female magazines was The Queen magazine that began in 1861. Samuel Beeton started the publication as a weekly newspaper containing very little about fashion. It was concerned initially about social events, occupations, literary interests and other inoffensive amusements suitable for ladies. The full title was The Queen, the Ladies' Newspaper. source

As Samuel Beeton's full partner, Isabella flourished. The Book of Household Management, first published in book form in October of 1861, represents one of the most successful books on household management ever written. (nearly 2 million copies were sold by 1868) As a representative of the British Victorian middle class, young Bella, as she was often referred to, relied on the scientific expertise of her "husband's colleagues (including Samuel's collaborator on Beeton's Dictionary of Universal Information (1858), John Sherer), John Morton's Cyclopedia of Agriculture (1851), and William Rhind's History of the Vegetable Kingdom." while compiling both the Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine and The Book of Household Management. (The Book of Household Management. was originally published as a monthly supplement in the Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine in September of 1859 when Isabella was twenty-three)

From the Jacket Cover of Mrs. Beeton's English Cookery (undated)

This is the standard book of English cooking, now published for the first time in the USA. Famous for many years as the one great authority on English cookery and probably the world's best seeling cookbook, it has been brought completely up to date, new tested recipes have been added and it is now hailed as the basic all-in-one volume on Cookery, Household Work and Table Service.

Special features include Vegetarian Cookery, Invalid Cookery, Pressure Cookery, Preserving, Game, Herbs, and Condiments, Bread, Biscuits, Cakes etc.

The section on Household Work includes management of servants, furnishings and equipment, choosing and buying provisions, a calendar of food seasons, household hints and recipes, organization of a storeroom, etc.

The section on Table Service includes complete information about beverages, the art of carving, how to wait at table, table decorations, menu making. Mrs. Beeton covers everything with authority, from napkin folding to full dress dinner and home laundry work, and supplies a complete glossary and alphabetical index...Mrs. Beeton's English Cookery contains charts and tables of calories, vitamins, weights and measures, equivalents, cooking times, temperatures, tests for food, loss by waste, etc.

Though Mrs. Beeton did not create the recipes in her book, she (along with her cook and kitchen maid) did test every single one, rejecting the elaborate concoctions favored by professional cooks like Charles Francatelli (chef to Queen Victoria) and selecting only those appropriate for middle-class homes. Her skills were those of an editor and teacher, lending firm but gentle guidance to the new housekeeper, a role more needed in the industrial mid-19th century than it had been in earlier centuries, when people were more likely to settle close to home. This book was designed for the woman who was separated from the advice of family, whether by the distance to the next village or of an ocean.

Mrs. Beeton's recipes are easily found online. I have provided a few resources below. From the Preface:

The aim of this new and revised edition of Mrs. Beeton's English Cookery has been to bring the book fully up to date and to meet present day conditions., but without destroying any of the unique features on which the book's permanent value rests. This is, indeed, the guiding principle on which all previous revisions have been based; and therein lies the reason why the value of the book has been undiminished throughout more than three-quarters of a century.

The Truth About Mrs. Beeton: In her biography of Mrs. Beeton entitled Mrs. Beeton and Her Husband (Collins, 1948,) Miss Nancy Spain strongly contradicts those ill-informed people who persist in deriding the Mother of English Cookery. she points out that Mrs. beeton never said "Take ten eggs" or "First Catch Your Hare," and to accuse her of extravagance is ridiculous; for Mrs. Beeton's Household Management was originally compiled to meet a demand for economy and efficiency in the kitchen, and no cookery book ever contained more recipes for the general public.

Mrs. Beeton's is the only cookery book to have survived two World Wars, and emerged at the end with its indispensability unaffected...The lasting reputation of Mrs. beeton's Cookery Books was not attained solely by the merits of the first issue. The books have been tried and tested and not found wanting, by generations of successful housewives. Mrs. Beeton brought to their origin such ability, method and conscientious care that with the exception of corrections demanded by changing times, materials, utensils and labour saving appliances, her work stands, with but little amendment, unaltered to the present day. But while little has been taken away, much has been added. The Editors

Isabella Beeton became ill after the birth of her fourth child, and died of puerperal fever at the age of twenty-eight.

Mrs Beeton died very young, a few days after the birth of her fourth son. Samuel Beeton is said to have never recovered from his loss and eventually he lost control of his publishing business. According to the food historian Clarissa Dickson-Wright, his publishing competitors bankrupted him, using a process that is now illegal of buying up all his debts and then presenting him with them to him as one bill. A bill he could never pay.

It wasn't Mrs Beeton's cookery book that they were after, but his highly profitable magazines and newspapers. However, it is Mrs Beeton's cookery book that endures as a monument to the name of Beeton...source

Ever since I got back from PA on Monday, I have been inundated with problems at my business. I will be back to regular posting, visiting and answering email on Saturday when I plan on posting for Potato Chip Day. I am thankful I managed to get this post in order, however, I must admit, this may just be the most difficult post I have ever attempted. Thanks for your patience and for visiting, Louise:)

1. "MrsBeeton.com is an ongoing project that provides free access to the complete text of Beeton's Book of Household Management."
2. A Romp through The Book of Household Management @ Gherkins & Tomatoes
3. The Book of Household Management (online edition)
4. Books for Cooks: This unique collection of cookery books will transport you back in time. It will take you to medieval banqueting tables laden with peacocks and pastry ships; to the medicine cabinets of noblewomen; and to royal picnics in the jungle. It will show you how the poor were encouraged to re-use coffee grounds in Victorian London, and how a rationed population attempted to stay healthy during World War 6. You will find recipes for puddings and roasts, for beauty treatments and bed bug repellents, for pies made with live birds and frogs, and for dishes spiced with ingredients as valuable as jewels...
5. The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton
6. Isabella Beeton @ answers.com
7. Women's Magazines Down the Ages @ The Guardian
8. The Queen (magazine images)


  1. I hadn't heard about Mrs. Beeton earlier. But I must say, I enjoyed reading about her today.

  2. I had no idea about this author -- very interesting post!

  3. Hi Raaga,
    Thanks so much for dropping by. She was indeed a fascinating woman and author. I'm so glad you enjoyed your visit:)

    Hi Mae,
    I appreciate you stopping by Mae. I'm delighted you enjoyed this post. It was difficult to wade through the repeated words written about her and weedle out the gems.

  4. For the modern-day Martha Stewart fans, this is where it all started. I've watched "The Secret Life .." which was fascinating, but had no idea she was one of 21 siblings! I once saw an original Mrs. Beeton text at the Morgan Library. Given all that she did throughout her short life, the size and detail of the original volume is staggering!

  5. I am looking into the movie T.W. My daughter tells me it may be available on Netflix. I would like to see it.

    I suppose the paths of all those before us have paved the way for our curiosities for more answers. I have taken a more objective approach to Martha because of those such as Mrs. Beeton. I can't imagine her "only" spending four years organizing that text!

  6. Another new topic of interest. Thats why I love coming here. I hope all the problems got sorted out.

  7. Thanks Courtney, you are always welcome to visit, ANYTIME!


Through this wide opened gate,
none came too early,
none returned too late.

Thanks for dropping in...Louise