The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton by Kathryn Hughes

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The Independent Culture

If the bumper heap of 48-page pamphlets that made up The Book of Household Management seemed panoptic in their scope to contemporary purchasers, then The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton, too, leaves very few corners of the mid-Victorian domestic interior unswept. From one angle it is a kind of history of the early woman's magazine; from another a re-imagined users' guide to Crimea-era domestic service. The amateur student of venereology will find much in it to relish and the historian of the Victorian pub not be disappointed. At its heart, though, lie the two equally vivid figures of Isabella Mayson and the man she married, Samuel Orchart Beeton, and the socio-economic process of which they were a part.

Both halves of the Mayson-Beeton alliance turn out to display that purposeful sense of upward social mobility so characteristic of the Victorian age and indeed The Book of Household Management itself. Isabella's father was a penniless north country curate's son who died young. The Dorling clan, into which her mother then married, were the descendants of a wily Surrey printer who began his career by printing race cards for the Derby and ended it by bequeathing a controlling interest in the Epsom grandstand to his gentlemanly son. Beeton Snr was a Suffolk-born city publican, whose heir set up as a publisher and, in a world before copyright, made a small fortune out of pirated editions of Harriet Beecher Stowe's American best-seller, Uncle Tom's Cabin.

However fascinating these preliminary chapters, the biography really comes alive in its treatment of the young couple's mid-1850s courtship, from which enough letters survive to enable Hughes to construct an epic narrative of doubt, desire and latent anxiety: Sam, whose weakness for mock-medieval whimsy ("Thus, then, fair maid, I beseech thee to name the hour at which I shall meet thee &c") is more than a bit irritating, clearly resentful of Dorling airs; Isabella, irked by her fiancé's habit of breaking dates, is ardently attracted while envisaging the married state as a cross between a commercial acquisition and a board school. "In a very short time you will have the entire management of me," she writes, "and I can assure you that you will find in me a most docile and willing pupil."

Isabella's marital satisfactions were undermined only by the syphilis with which her previously tart-grabbing husband seems to have infected her (Hughes's explanation of the tide of miscarriages and sickly children) and the precariousness of his business schemes. Often inspired in his publishing innovations - he has some claims to have revolutionised the market with his restyled Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine - Sam also specialised in sailing close to the wind while avoiding outright bankruptcy. In his wife, soon established as cookery correspondent, later promoted to "editress", he found an unexpectedly talented collaborator. The Book of Household Management, as Hughes shows, was not "a repository of one woman's expertise and experience in the kitchen" but an astute publisher's brainwave, put together piecemeal and plagiarising the genre's pioneers. At the same time, its odd mixture of aspiration and realism - the suppers for two dozen guests balanced by hints for genteel economising - chimed with the realities of the average Victorian bourgeois existence. Quite as much as Samuel Smiles's Self-Help, it was a text-book for the age.

Isabella died at 28 of puerperal fever, but Sam survived until his mid-forties, financially embarrassed and prone to odd, and perhaps syphilitically induced, lapses in judgment. There was a terrific scandal in 1867 when the Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine's letters page was found to be playing host to a flagellants' chat-room whose contributors included a "Miss Birch" and one signing himself "A Rejoicer in the Restoration of the Rod".

Kathryn Hughes's biography is an altogether fascinating account of Mrs B's life and times, devious and playful by turns, occasionally undermined by a please-all-the-punters style in which academic sonorities like "totalised" and "buried subtexts" jostle for precedence with breezy slang, but always redeeming itself by sheer attention to detail. At one point, for example, Hughes offers a queer little vignette from the life of Isabella's philoprogenitive half-sister Lucy, whose Darwinian husband insisted that, to encourage habits of punctuality and self-reliance, only 10 breakfast eggs should be served up to their 11 children. All of a sudden, amid the receipts for Pungent Salads and Instantaneous Beef Tea, you get an altogether dreadful sense of what, for at least a certain proportion of its inhabitants, life in Victorian England was like.