The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton, By Kathryn Hughes

The cook, the beef, the life and the mother
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The Independent Culture

By then, her famous Book of Household Management had become one of the great publishing successes of all time. It had gone through numerous editions, spawned derivations and revisions such as "Mrs Beeton's Cookery Book". My 1923 copy claims: "Mrs Beeton has been the guide, philosopher, and friend of countless happy homes for more than half a century". Arthur Conan Doyle would have agreed: one of his heroes declares that her book "has more wisdom to the square inch than any work of man".

Surprisingly, the woman who achieved this far-reaching reputation lived a very short life: Isabella Beeton died in her 29th year. Posthumously, she became a national treasure. However, so little was known that doubts arose whether she actually existed. Perhaps she was merely a publisher's ploy?

Eventually biographies began to appear, very much under Beeton family control. Kathryn Hughes, having bought or borrowed most of the archive, claims to be the first to write about her without restriction. She does so with verve and humour, a knowing outlook and wide concern. Who was this woman, she asks, who held up a mirror to our intimate desires, who recognised the centrality of home as the place where we go to be loved and fed, and who has "become part of the fabric we feel ourselves to be". Time and again, Hughes makes us savour aspects of 19th-century life in order to sharpen our awareness of how we live now.

Mrs Beeton was born Isabella Mayson, the daughter of a linen wholesaler. Initially one of four children, she played amid the fabric pillars that filled his Cheapside warehouse. After the death of her father at 39, her mother remarried. Her new husband, Henry Dorling, was Clerk of the Course at Epsom, with four children of his own; 13 more followed, making 21 in all. Once, when Dorling demanded explanation of a terrible din, his wife replied: "That, Henry, is your children and my children fighting our children."

The problem of over-crowding was solved by setting up a satellite nursery in the recently built grandstand at Epsom. Truckle beds were brought out at night. There Isabella, the eldest child, looked after her siblings. Hughes makes great play with the fact that Mrs Beeton spent part of her youth in a building "that resembled a stranded ocean liner on a sea of green". She surmises that this space designed for thousands, where 65 lambs were roasted every day and 800 eggs boiled, explains the ease with which Mrs Beeton came to think in large numbers.

But first she had to meet and marry Sam Beeton. It proved to be a union both advantageous and tragic. Sam had moved from the selling of stationery into publishing. He specialised in reprinting American books, including the hugely popular Uncle Tom's Cabin and set up The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine, which, Hughes claims, "was the publication that most surely shaped the magazines we read today".

Isabella began writing for that magazine in 1857, but soon became more ambitious. Remembering the chaos of her own upbringing, she wanted to bring order to the middle-class home. In 1861 she published her monumental tome. Ironically, this woman who empowered others fell victim to that over which she had no control. Though she did succeed in giving birth to two sons who survived, she is said to have had a string of miscarriages before the first was born in 1859. That and other information on her health follows the classic pattern for syphilitic women. Hughes concludes that she had been infected by Sam, who had caught the disease during his premarital philandering.

There is seemingly no aspect of Victorian life that Kathryn Hughes cannot assimilate and understand from the inside. This is living history, in which massive research and impeccable scholarship is handled with invigorating panache.

Frances Spalding's 'Gwen Raverat: friends, family and affections' is published by Pimlico

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