‘A stout Victorian matron in black bombazine, her huge upper arms developed by years of beating outrageous quantities of eggs into churn-loads of butter’. This description fits a widely held view of Mrs Beeton, author of the culinary bible Household Management, but it could not be further from the truth. Isabella Beeton was an attractive young woman of 23 when her best-selling book was first published, and she was dead before the age of thirty.
Born Isabella Mayson on the 14th March 1836 at 24 Milk Street, London, Isabella’s mother was left a widow with four daughters, but later married a well-to-do widower called Henry Dorling. Dorling also had four children and the couple’s combined family eventually grew to a startling twenty one. Mr Dorling was Clerk of the Course at Epsom racetrack, where Isabella’s interest in domestic affairs may well have begun. Her younger half brothers and sisters were virtually raised in cavernous quarters below the grand-stand, with Isabella assisting their nanny. She was also exposed to catering on a large scale, as meals for thousands of race-goers were prepared in the grand-stand’s kitchens.
On 10th July 1856, Isabella married an up-and-coming young publisher called Samuel Orchart Beeton.
The newlyweds settled into a home at middle-class Pinner and Isabella involved herself in Sam’s publishing business. She translated French novels and wrote columns for one of his most successful ventures, The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine. Under her influence the magazine featured colour plates of the latest French fashions, collected by Isabella herself on annual trips to Paris.
It was her identification with other new wives struggling to negotiate the complicated structure of Victorian domestic life that prompted her to provide recipes and advice in a monthly segment for E.D.M which later appeared in book form as Household Management.
The project would never have seen the light of day if Isabella had listened to the wife of one of Sam’s friends, a Mrs English. Her response to Isabella’s proposed book was;
‘I see difficulties in your way as regards Publishing a Book of Cookery. Cookery is a Science that is only learnt by Long Experience and years of study which of course you have not had.’
Undaunted, and despite the fact that she was now pregnant, Isabella began the massive task of research and recipe testing. Mrs English may have been right about the young Mrs Beeton’s inexperience but through the E.D.M. she was able to draw on the culinary resources of an entire nation. The perception that recipes in Household Management were wildly extravagant is also unfair. In fact one of the book’s most famous pudding recipes required neither eggs, butter or cream. It was estimated to cost a mere one shilling and fourpence and to be sufficient for 7-8 servings. Isabella was not a professional cook, and a cautionary note about this pudding’s cooking time may have been prompted by a disaster in her Pinner test kitchen. It should also be remembered that the size of Victorian families called for large quantities For example, when Isabella advised packing around ten dozen bottles of cordials and alcoholic drinks for a picnic, she had in mind a party of at least forty.
Admittedly the book included a soup which called for a whole fresh turtle, half a pound of butter and a bottle of Madeira, but far from promoting such rich food, Isabella noted the soup was; ‘Apt to disagree with weak stomachs,’
In the Invalid Cookery section Mrs Beeton included an intiguing recipe for a toast sandwich.
‘Place a very thin piece of cold toast between two slices of thin bread-and-butter in the form of a sandwich, adding a seasoning of pepper and salt.’
I love the sound of this. It could be varied by adding pulled meat, which is very fashionable these days.
Following the enormous success of Household Management, Isabella’s star shone so brightly within the family that her much younger half-sisters became intensely jealous. One night little Amy Dorling crept under the dinner table with a pair of scissors and cut her big sister’s petticoats to ribbons in a fit of revenge.
The early years of Isabella’s marriage were busy and fulfilling professionally but she experienced enormous personal tragedy. Her first baby died from croup at only three months of age and her second child died at three from scarlet fever. She also suffered a series of miscarriages.
Sam Beeton was himself delicate, having inherited consumption from his mother. In an effort to improve his health he and Isabella moved to a property called Mount Pleasant, near the Thames at Greenhithe in Kent. It was here that a third son named Orchart was born. Isabelle’s sisters may have been jealous of her when they were young but it was now Sam they resented, blaming him for Isabella’s miscarriages and for keeping her so busy they were deprived of her company. They also complained that Sam did not make them welcome at Mount Pleasant, described by Isabella’s sister Charlotte as ‘That nasty, damp house down by the river’.
Creative and energetic, but more impulsive than his level headed wife, Sam Beeton made some bad business decisions. He was in serious financial trouble when Isabella died of puerperal fever in July 1865, following the birth of their fourth child. She was just twenty eight.
The fever was caused by infection, probably due to a lack of cleanliness on the part of her doctor and midwife…a sad irony considering Isabella’s progressive stance on hygiene. However, Isabella’s family blamed her death on the physical strain of multiple pregnancies and the stress of Sam’s business worries. Her heartbroken sister Charlotte would insist for years afterwards; ‘He killed her!’
The charge may have been unfair but Sam had leaned heavily on his wife for both practical and emotional support and after her death he was tortured by guilt and remorse. A year later he was declared bankrupt and his own health deteriorated. He died in 1877, aged 46. The baby Isabella left behind was called Mayson. By the time he and his older brother were middle aged their dead mother had become a figure of fun, attributed with phrases such as ‘first catch your hare’ and ‘ take two dozen eggs’, neither of which actually appear in her books.
In 1927 humorist Wyndham Lewis took the joke even further with a Daily Mail sketch in which he had Mrs Beeton presenting; ‘A simple little sauce composed expressly for persons with limited incomes’
Take half a gallon of Napoleon brandy , place in a silver pan, rinse round and throw away. Next take five pounds of cream and break into it the yolks of thirty eggs. Whisk over a slow fire and set on ice. Next take a quart of imperial Tokay, three pounds of fine sugar, and ten lemons. Mix thoroughly, strain through the cream mixture and throw away. Take a dozen more eggs, beat lightly into a froth with two quarts of good Madeira, squeeze in the juice of a pound of hothouse grapes, and pour over the residue. After standing for an hour strain the whole though a fine sieve. Repeat from the beginning, adding a magnum of champagne and two dozen plovers’ eggs……”
Isabella Beeton was destined to be the butt of such jokes for generations but if she were alive today she would probably be a celebrity chef dressed in up-to-the-minute designer gear. I can imagine her collaborating with Jamie Oliver in his efforts to improve Britain’s school dinners and certainly Jamie’s struggles with a limited budget would have been grist to her mill. During the severe winter of 1858 she ran a soup kitchen from her Pinner Kitchen, providing a dozen local families with a nutritious beef and vegetable broth produced at around a penny a quart.
SOME OF MRS BEETON’S RECIPES APPEAR IN MY BOOK, ALL ALONG THE RIVER, TALES FROM THE THAMES.
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