Review of 'The Short Life & Long Times of Mrs Beeton'

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

the_short_times_and_long_times_of_mrsbeeton.jpg Many will have heard of “The Book of Household Management” by Mrs Beeton which is seen as one of the first useful cookbook. In fact, it is a book that talks about much more than this covering topics such as staff management, finances and party arranging. “The Short Life & Long Times of Mrs Beeton” tells the story of not only this book but of it's remarkable author, Mrs. Isabella Beeton who was only 25 when she wrote it having only really managed a household for about half a year. This begs the question: What would she know of household management at such a young age and with such little experience? Well, in fact, her whole life led up to this point with her largely responsible for the upbringing of her 13 siblings and the organizational skills involved in maintaining an “upper middle-class” home. At the age of 19 she married Samuel Orchard Beeton, a moderately successful London publisher known for publication of American books as well as a series of magazines such as “The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine” and “Boys Own”. Samuel's life was dominated by publishing so it is only natural that Isabella would begin to show an interest, initially contributing to “The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine” then her epic “The Book of Household Management” that was originally serialized before being published as a single volume. Though not initially a huge success it went on to become a publishing phenomenon with numerous revisions well after Isabella's tragic death at the age of 29.

There have been numerous controversies and falsehoods over the years about this story which Hughes attempts to put right here. In researching the book she looks into what type of man Samuel really was rather than relying on Isabella's family's contention that he was the cause of many of her problems later in life (in fact, it seems to be both Samuel and Isabella that contributed). Hughes was able to obtain “love letters” between Samuel and Isabella that show a loving relationship with normal relationship issues. Hughes also strongly believes that “young man about town” Samuel suffered from syphilis which he passed onto his wife and was the cause of not only her multiple miscarriages but also her eventual death.

On the suggestion that Isabella was a plagiarists Hughes is at pains to point out that it was quite a common practice in the era to “borrow” heavily from other published works with publisher Samuel being a perfect example. In Isabela's case she laboured several years to compile the material in the book and taking care to give it her “own slant” and liberally seeding it with her personal insights. We learn she was trying very hard to provide practical information rather than attempting to simple provide a reference manual or a book full of impractical, elitist, advice. Indeed, she pioneered the idea of listing the ingredients first in recipes rather than at the end, which had previously been the norm.

As the title implies, this book is more than just the story of Mrs Beeton and her family but it is also the story of the age in which she lived. Chapters often take us into that era's world of horse racing at Epsom, societal norms, all the way to the practical details of owning a house and insolvency. This all sets the context to understand the often tragic story of Mrs Beeton and perhaps better appreciate the life of an amazing woman.

Though it is quite a long book including a huge footnote section if you are in any way interested with Victoriana, Mrs Beeton or the history of cooking “The Short Life & Long Times of Mrs Beeton” is well worth your time despite the frequent digressions.

Rating: “Really good but I have some issues”

Review Date: 2024-05-11

Genre: Autobiography

Publisher: Harper Perennial

Publication Date: 2005

ISBN: 1841153745