Mrs Beeton takes her place with the greats of Victorian literature

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The Independent Online

When Isabella Beeton wrote her book of household management she intended it simply as an aid for young brides. Now, more than 100 years and millions of copies later, it has been re-issued as a classic alongside Dickens and Trollope.

The new edition overthrows the popular image of Beeton as a sturdy matron dispensing wordly wisdom on everything from stocking a kitchen to managing servants. She was only 22 when she compiled the book and had previously worked as a fashion journalist and translated French novels for serialisation in her husband's magazine.

But publication of Household Management in 1861 made her the Delia Smith of the day: her tome became essential reading for the middle classes of Victorian England. It sold 60,000 copies in the first year and by 1867 two million copies had been bought.

Recently it has come to represent a lost way of life ("first catch your hare") and extravagance ("take a dozen eggs") but despite its unfashionable image, Beeton continues to sell and has never been out of print. Billy Whitehead, of Books for Cooks in west London, said she sold at least two copies a week.

"There has been a big resurgence in British food and people want to read Mrs Beeton to find out more information. I'm not sure that many people actually use the recipes but it is a fantastic reference book. I'm sure the popularity of organic food and the fact that she cooked with locally sourced ingredients which were eaten in season also has something to do with it."

Nicola Humble, who compiled the new edition for Oxford University Press, said Beeton had been unfairly maligned.

"In fact she never said anything about catching the hare or using all those eggs. The book has been the subject of persistent misinterpretation," she said yesterday. "Her image is partly down to the way she was marketed because it was felt that at the age of 22 she needed to portray the right amount of authority and gravitas if the book was to succeed and also she did tend towards a rather stern style of writing."

A firm advocate of early rising, cleanliness and frugality,Mrs Beeton advised her readers to be careful in their choice of friends, warning that a "gossiping acquaintance . . . should be avoided as a pestilence".

Ms Humble, an English lecturer at Surrey University, believes Mrs Beeton was a major force in shaping Victorian middle class identity and one of the earliest feminists. She said: "She was very concerned that a woman's role at the centre of the household should be taken seriously and felt that it was just as important as the man's role outside the home. Her main agenda was to get men to spend more time at home and she was responsible for the new cult of domesticity that played such a major role in Victorian life."

Writing the introduction to the book, Mrs Beeton said: "As with the commander of an army, or the leader of any enterprise, so it is with the mistress of the house. Of all those acquirements, which more particularly belong to the feminine character, there are none which take a higher rank, in our estimation, than such as enter into a knowledge of household duties; for on these are perpetually dependent the happiness, comfort and well being of a family."

She also showed uncanny prescience when it came to food production. She was against factory farming and railed furiously against the emerging battery farming of hens and veal production.

Although she is famous for her traditional English recipes, Mrs Beeton also brought many foreign recipes to popular attention, including curries and blancmange and foods from France, Portugal and Spain. Although she did not invent the recipes - most were sent in by readers of her husband's magazine - she did claim to have tested them all.

But not everyone is so fond of Mrs Beeton. Clarissa Dickson Wright, the remaining fat lady, whose own cookery is very much of the "take 12 eggs" variety, cannot abide the woman and holds her responsible for "starting the rot in British cooking".