Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Victorian Women Wednesday: Isabella Beeton

Isabella Mary Mayson Beeton, known most famously as Mrs. Beeton, was the household management guru of the Victorian era. It's tempting to compare her to modern homemaking mavens like Martha Stewart, but Mrs. Beeton's life and experience were unique, her success unequaled at the time, and her legacy perhaps more indelible than any modern example.

Isabella was born in 1836 in Cheapside, London. She was the first of four children born to Benjamin and Elizabeth Mayson. Unfortunately, Benjamin died when Isabella was young and her mother remarried. Her step-father, Henry Dorling was a widower with four children of his own, and Elizabeth and Henry would go on to produce thirteen more children, making Isabella the oldest of twenty-one children. It's easy to imagine that she learned some of her homemaking and care-taking skills from her early experiences.

Isabella had a good education, including a period of study in Germany, where she became an accomplished pianist. When she returned to London, she met Samuel Orchart Beeton, a rich publisher of books and popular magazines, who had grown up on the same street she had in Cheapside. Their mothers had kept in touch over the years, so their connection is not surprising. In 1856, the couple married, though Isabella's step-father did not approve of the match and refused to attend their wedding.

A plate from the
Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine
Over the next few years, Isabella and Samuel experienced personal tragedy as they lost two children to illness soon after they were born and Isabella experienced several more miscarriages and stillbirths. However, they made a productive and successful publishing team. Isabella edited and wrote for his publications, and eventually completed her famous The Book of Household Management, which was originally part of a monthly supplement in Samuel's publication, "The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine"
but was collected into one volume in 1861.

Isabella's book was an encyclopedic guide to running a Victorian household, touching on issues related to servants, child care, taking care of livestock, all manner of foodstuffs, including hundreds of recipes, and even venturing out into science, religion, history, and advice about productivity. Of the 900 recipes in the collected volume, many were decorated with colored engravings, an innovation that we expect as a veritable necessity cookbooks today.

Sadly, Isabella died at the age 28, just one day after giving birth to her fourth child, a son named Mayson. Mayson followed in his father's footsteps, becoming a publisher and journalist. He was also an entrepreneur and set up a paper mill in Newfoundland, which eventually became a key supplier of newsprint to the Daily Mail during the war years.

Considering the wide ranging influence of her books and articles, and the amazing success of her Book of Household Management, one can't help but wonder what else she might have written and accomplished if she had lived longer. In the first year of its publication The Book of Household Management sold 60,000 copies. Within seven years, it had sold nearly 2 million copies. Astounding sales figures, even by today's standards.

Few Victorian women after the 1860's would have been unaware of Mrs. Beeton. Indeed, her name, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, became synonymous by 1890 as an authority on all things domestic and culinary. If you're interested, you can obtain a free e-copy of The Book of Household Management at Project Gutenberg.