I like to think that, had she been alive today, Mrs Beeton would have been a blogger. Before her death in 1865 aged 28, which followed the birth of her fourth child, she wrote prolifically. Her husband, Samuel Beeton, was a publisher, and much of the material in the book was first printed in the form of articles in ladies’ magazines between 1859 and 1861 before then emerging in one volume as the book we would recognise as ‘Household Management’.
It’s fair to say that much of the material in ‘Household Management’ was collected (plagiarised, according to some less charitable commentators) and edited together, rather than being original to Isabella Beeton, but she probably invented the modern mode of laying out recipes – with an ingredient list at the top, followed by directions and cooking instructions – something we take for granted today. While it is to a great degree a recipe book, it also contains wonderful snippets of advice on all aspects of victorian life – on medicine, the law, clothing, manners, the rearing of livestock, and of course famously the selection management of one’s servants.
Most of the recipes stand the test of time quite well – do avoid however the recommendation to boil carrots for about three hours – there are some wonderful snippets which are utterly of their period and richly reward the reader’s attention, though perhaps not their imitation!
Mrs Beeton on Whooping Cough: “This is a purely spasmodic disease, and is only infectious through the faculty of imitation, a habit that all children are remarkably apt to fall into, and even where adults have contracted whooping-cough, it has been from the same cause, and is as readily accounted for, on the principle of imitation, as that the gaping of one person will excite or predispose a whole party to follow the same spasmodic example.” Her recommendations for treatment are… equally surprising!
On paying visits of courtesy (to be done after luncheon!): “They are uniformly required after dining at a friend’s house, or after a ball, picnic, or any other party. These visits should be short, a stay from fifteen to twenty minutes being quite sufficient. A lady paying a visit may remove her boa or neckerchief, but neither her shawl nor bonnet.” So there you go, boa off, bonnet on – are we clear?
There are some marvellous-looking (not yet tested here!) recipes for home-brewed – and sometimes fortified – wines, as well as curing and preserving – after all it’s a book from the years before refrigeration – and for this reason alone deserves to be on everyone’s bookshelf and dipped into regularly. Obviously we’d all like an old hardback copy complete with colour plates, but as it is widely available in paperback reprint (my well thumbed copy is a recent Wordsworth Edition) and is free to download in a variety of e-reader formats, albeit often without it’s illustrations, you really have no excuse!
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