Hughes, Kathryn Entries

Mrs. Beeton and "Mrs. Beeton's"

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So! I have already finished my first biography in the Year of Biographies: Kathryn Hughes' The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton.

As I was saying in my post of a few days ago, Hughes' book is more a biography of a book than a biography of a person, which was a great way to start out the project. Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management, in its many incarnations and branded spin-offs, has been THE go-to manual for British homemakers for over a hundred years, but its long career of clout and influence didn't really get going until after Mrs. Beeton herself had died, and after her publisher husband, who provided much of the driving force for the book's creation, had fallen into syphilitic insanity and had to sell his company and furniture to pay his creditors. In a way, the story of the actual Beetons is secondary to the story of Beeton's itself.

Not only that, but from its very beginnings the book was a cobbled-together collage portrait of cookery, etiquette and home management books spanning the previous fifty years, the Beetons doing something between editing and plagiarizing the tome into existence. The book and its brand only got more hybrid and multi-authored as time went on, with successive generations of Beeton women publishing under the moniker "Mrs. Beeton," successive generations of publishers revising and expanding Management's original text, and, eventually, a full-blown sale of the Mrs. Beeton brand. As Hughes points out in the final pages of her study, all this results in a dispersed "text" that is just the type of thing postmodern theorists seek out and drool over. Our culture right now is interested in, and wants to be comfortable with, texts which have no clear author, whose creation was a complex or multi-part process. But Hughes argues that, judging by modern reactions to the way the Beeton book was put together, we are actually a lot less comfortable with this crossbred concoction than the mid-Victorians were. Whereas pilfering from other peoples' cookbooks was common practice when Mrs. Beeton was doing it so thoroughly in the 1860's, we can't help feeling a bit shocked and let down when we judge her by our modern standards of authorship, and it is sometimes difficult for a contemporary reader to locate what exactly it is that she and her husband did. They didn't exactly write a book, but they managed to assemble a mish-mash of material from other sources in such a way that the finished product spoke eloquently to the age's upwardly-striving middle classes.

And because Mrs. Beeton's became so wildly successful and influential, it also served to freeze certain moments of British cookery and homemaking in time, extending them far beyond what would otherwise have been their normal lifespan. Hughes takes the famous tendency of the British to boil vegetables into a pulp: the declining quality of domestic produce in the 1850's and '60's meant that there were good reasons that people were boiling their vegetables back then, but the inclusion of those long boiling times in Mrs. Beeton's meant that the practice got extended for years after those reasons had faded away. In fact, as Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse attests, people were still skinning and boiling their vegetables into an overdone mess well into the twentieth century, when fresh and delicious veggies were readily available. Hence Mrs. Beeton, or at least Mrs. Beeton's, gets blamed for "ruining cooking in Britain," despite the fact that Mrs. Beeton herself never invented a recipe or sanctioned a process. It's an interesting meditation on custom and influence.

Also fascinating was the point that because the Mrs. Beeton brand is constantly being reinvented, each new generation thinks of her as a person who probably belonged to their parents' or grandparents' generation. A recent play associated her with World War II-era Britain, and people in the 1930's thought of her as epitomizing the decadence and extravagance of the Edwardian era. Apparently, Lytton Strachey considered including her in his famous dirt-slinger, Eminent Victorians, and envisaged her as a "tub-like" woman all in black, who bore a resemblance to Queen Victoria herself. Whether in service of breaking with one's forerunners or indulging in nostalgia for times gone by, the legendary Mrs. Beeton seems always just prior to any person's direct experience. Having some sense of who she actually was - a practical, organized middle-class woman who pitched in with her husband's publishing business, mourned her syphilis-induced inability to produce healthy children, and died very young - added much to my enjoyment of sampling later generations' visions of her.

The Beetons à la Hughes remind me of the "on-the-go" stereotype of today's high-powered businesspeople. Always on the lookout for magazine article fodder, they both worked constantly, even on vacation, making contacts with French illustrators or scouting out locations for descriptive pieces. It's good to be reminded that, as much as we talk about life getting faster and more demanding in the modern era, there have always been people driven to live like the Beetons, and the necessities they were under, such as corresponding by letter and traveling by train, hardly made their lives simpler or more idyllic. They were editing gigantic tomes of "universal knowledge" while also editing and writing pieces for their stable of magazines, all of which were monthly or bi-weekly. I think that so often the word "Victorian" summons up images of domestic tranquility and well-ordered social clubs, tea parties and sitting around the family fire of an evening. Life for the Beetons, though, ran at break-neck speed. This realization is especially ironic considering that the Book of Household Management is full of plate illustrations depicting idyllic farmyard scenes, hearkening back to an imaginary time of bygone pleasures similar to the one that many people conjure up when thinking about Victorians. So the Beetons were looking backward at the eighteenth century, and we are looking backward at them. I wonder how far back one must go before the backward glances cease.

Hughes also makes some interesting points about the shifting class dynamics in England at the time, and how they affected the Beeton family. Specifically, Isabella's decision to work for money alongside Sam was taken at a crucial moment when it was becoming expected that "respectable" women stay home and preside over the domestic realm. Both Sam and Isabella were part of the rapidly growing middle class whose parents or grandparents were servants but who had made a more prestigious place for themselves in the world. In the previous generation, or at least the generation before that, it was totally acceptable for wives to work for money, especially in their husbands' businesses (Sam's mother and stepmother both worked as publicans at the Dolphin, the inn owned by the Beeton family). But by the time Isabella got married, the more "refined" tastes of mid-Victorianism meant that her journalism was seen as mildly scandalous in its own right, and also a negative reflection on Sam's ability to support his family. It is one of the many ironies of the Beetons' story that one of their largest joint projects involved putting out a book that reinforced exactly those ideals of feminine domesticity that they themselves were flouting. It is interesting, also, to see them rooted so concretely in a specific time and class, because after their deaths Mrs. Beeton's was re-imagined to accord with the customs and expectations (ever-fancier, at least until the post-war generation) that came with middle-class life as time progressed.

There are also "juicier" tidbits in this story - the portrayal of Sam Beeton's decline into self-destructive insanity after Isabella's death is the stuff of tabloids (Lytton Strachey would be proud). And the evocation of Isabella's upbringing at Epsom, the site of the famous Derby, where her stepfather was a local kingpin and where she helped to raise her siblings and half-siblings in the deserted Grandstand for the majority of the year, are vivid and intriguing. But it's really the history of the book that provides the most food for thought here, and I thought that Hughes did a good job tracing its various versions and meanings throughout the Beetons' lives and beyond.

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography