THE VICTORIAN MARTHA STEWART The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton: The First Domestic Goddess By Kathryn Hughes Reviewed by Lori Rotskoff
In January of 1865, things were looking up for 28-year-old Isabella Beeton. Married to Sam Beeton, a prolific publisher of magazines and books in Victorian London, Isabella was eagerly expecting a baby—the second of two healthy sons she would produce after losing two earlier children in infancy. As her husband’s tireless collaborator, Isabella was working full-time as a journalist, and had achieved fame as the editor of Britain’s best-selling cookbook and domestic advice manual, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management. Although financial problems dogged Sam’s publishing company, the Beetons had just launched a new magazine, which enhanced their influence among the burgeoning middle class. The equivalent of Martha Stewart in nineteenth-century England, “Mrs. Beeton” was a household word, a symbol of domestic know-how and efficiency. Then, just a week after the birth of Isabella’s baby, tragedy befell the Beeton family again: Isabella died suddenly of a terrible postpartum infection. And if the death of his young wife weren’t enough to bear, mounting debts forced Sam to sell his business and thus forego profits from future sales of her legendary book.
In her outstanding biography The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton, Kathryn Hughes chronicles Isabella Beeton’s life from her childhood to her untimely death. Drawing on previously concealed sources from the Beeton family archives, which she acquired through tenacious sleuthing, Hughes recreates the bustling world of this intensely productive yet ill-fated couple. The book offers more than a sensitive, meticulous life-narrative, though. Hughes paints her biographical portrait on a broad canvas, covering many facets of British cultural history: the evolution of consumer capitalism; the rise of the modern publishing industry; the development of cooking, entertaining, and housekeeping practices; and—not least—shifting ideas about women’s roles. And because domestic arbiters on both sides of the Atlantic continue to invoke Mrs. Beeton’s name with reverence today, Hughes serves up some tasty food for thought about her subject’s lasting significance. Her bulky book sometimes gives readers too much to digest—but like the robust menus that Isabella Beeton prescribed years ago, it makes for satisfying fare.
Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management was a smash from the start, selling over 60,000 copies in its first printing in 1861 and topping two million volumes by 1868. Comprising nearly 1,000 pages, it is a huge compilation of recipes and information on topics ranging from spring-cleaning routines to elegant dinner parties. The book’s typical reader was a housewife from the low- to mid-level ranks of the middle class: a woman married to a tradesman, clerk, or professional; living in or near a newly industrialized city; and employing, perhaps, one domestic servant, a “maid of all work” to help with chores and childcare. Although wives at the top of the social hierarchy could afford a fleet of servants, most Victorian mistresses ran their households on a tighter budget—and turned readily to tools and techniques that would render their labors more efficient, their purchases more economical, and their cooking more enjoyable.
Mrs. Beeton won the hearts and minds of her modestly genteel woman readers with a clear, authoritative voice that guided them through life in a rapidly changing world. In essence, she was a bellwether of the industrialization of the home—a process by which the systems, procedures, and values of the mechanized workplace transformed the nature of domestic labor. During a time when the doctrine of “separate spheres” held sway, middle-class wives were discouraged from engaging in profitable work, lest their husbands feel belittled as inferior breadwinners. Influenced by prevailing norms of femininity, bourgeois women aspired to a life of leisure, but financial constraints often created a disquieting gap between fantasy and reality. Isabella Beeton’s principal achievement, then, was to turn housework into a professional endeavor. She elevated domestic tasks from drudgery to craft, enabling housewives to take pride in managing homes “that ran like clockwork.”
The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton offers a perceptive take on the relationship between home and market. Hughes writes that
The Victorian middle-class home, far from being removed from the public sphere, was intimately connected with it… Domestic life may have been geographically removed from the streets, shops, warehouses, and factories of industrial production and commercial traffic, but psychically, socially and even economically it was wedded to the world beyond the front door.
In a typically elegant phrase, Hughes situates Beeton’s “literary housekeeping” at the intersection of home and commerce, reminding us how futile it is conceptually to separate the two.
For all her ideas about her subject’s broad significance, Hughes never strays far from the heart of her story: the links between Isabella Beeton’s private experience and public accomplishments. She shows, for example, how Isabella’s childhood provided a training ground for her later career. The first child of a London dry-goods trader, she toddled among bolts of muslin and silk in an apartment above her father’s textile warehouse. Growing up “feeling fabric between her fingers,” she developed an appreciation of fine and functional goods. When she was seven, her father died unexpectedly—and Isabella’s mother, pregnant with her fourth child, wasted no time finding a second husband. The new couple’s blended family eventually numbered 21 children, of whom Isabella was the oldest, and therefore the one conscripted as amateur nanny, to care for the busy brood. Amidst a “chorus of tears, tantrums, dripping noses and dirty nappies…[she] became a tiny adult herself, self-contained, brisk, useful.” A workhorse in her youth, no wonder she came to personify the emerging field of domestic science.
Yet the real making of “Mrs. Beeton” occurred during her marriage. Mining the love letters Isabella wrote during her engagement, Hughes reveals a passionate couple who forged a respectful, companionate marriage. Their union was also a productive work partnership. Sam was ambitious, but he was a risk-taking and unlucky businessman. He came up with bold ideas, but Isabella spent long hours churning out articles, editing magazine columns, and managing the firm’s accounts. Isabella’s work ethic stemmed from financial necessity: Sam needed assistance, and she had plenty of talent. There was another, sadder reason, too: miscarriages and the loss of two children had left their nursery empty. With time on her hands, Isabella channeled her pain into her work, finding solace in professional success.
The reason for their initial infertility is tragic. Although the record is not explicit, Hughes surmises that Sam contracted syphilis during a prenuptial visit to a prostitute. He unknowingly passed the illness on to his wife, who was unable to produce healthy children during the disease’s initial stage. Syphilis, we learn, passes into a kind of remission—during which time Isabella’s babies were able to thrive—before the disease returns with harsher symptoms. Although Isabella died before her syphilis became advanced, Sam grew sicker until his death at age 46.
Mrs. Beeton’s harried life was cut off by misfortune, but the importance of her career belies its brevity. Throwing herself into journalism, Isabella shunned prevailing norms that disparaged middle-class women who worked for money. Ironically, while her book inscribed vocational measures of value to housework, Beeton herself made an imprint on the commercial world. Fortunately, Hughes avoids grafting the image of a modern “career woman” onto her nineteenth-century subject. Isabella marched out of step with her times, but she wasn’t dancing to the drum of a feminist band that had not yet arrived to change the tune. While her writings imparted dignity to home affairs, Isabella’s life was no picnic. Wedded to a man who could barely provide a middle-class existence without relying on (or, some might say, exploiting) his wife’s prodigious labors in both the print shop and at home, Isabella was hardly a model of female liberation or economic independence.
Ultimately, Hughes puts a positive gloss on Beeton’s achievements. Beeton, she argues, not only helped Victorian matrons gain status in their homes, she also bequeathed to later generations habits of behavior and mind that they could apply to the workplace outside it. As she concludes,
[I]n the decades that followed the publication of the original Book of Household Management, as women from middle-class homes started to make their living in the marketplace, they drew upon the very skills that Mrs. Beeton had taught their mothers… Primary school teaching, nursing, and, in time, secretarial work and bank clerking all required the ability to organize one’s immediate environment and work in a systematic, productive and energy-saving way.
Beeton’s masterwork was not just an instruction manual for the home; it was, in fact, “a primer for Everywoman as she stepped out to meet the huge social, economic, and political challenges that lay just beyond the front door.”
Yet as the paradoxes of Beeton’s career suggest, evaluating the impact and consequences of domestic ideology—past as well as present—is a thorny matter. Ever since second-wave feminism gave rise to women’s history, scholars have staked out the kitchen and the parlor as sites for serious study. But when addressing home affairs, we need to ask questions about sexual politics that never flowed from Mrs. Beeton’s pen. Why, and with what effects, have women—and rarely men—taken on the lion’s share of unpaid household labor? If higher standards of living (of nutrition, cleanliness, home décor, and hospitality) have improved familial well being, haven’t they also, at times, hindered women’s efforts to achieve equality in society at large?
Decades after the reputation of domesticity was tarnished by feminists who didn’t take a shine to shining floors, new domestic mavens are now working hard to restore its luster. In her Beetonian tome Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House (1999), Cheryl Mendelson contends that housework is among the most pleasant, significant, and honorable forms of labor that anyone can perform. Even if we see laundry as an endless spin-cycle of drudgery, we must all come home at night—and sometimes, mastering a new recipe or setting up a new shoe rack counts, as Martha Stewart would put it, as “a good thing.” Still, to paraphrase Betty Friedan, household pursuits, left unchecked, have a beguiling way of expanding to fill the time available. If we take the dictates of domestic goddesses as gospel, we may lack the energy we need to tackle issues beyond our bathrooms. And we might not have the time—after plumping up the sofa cushions—to savor a thoughtful book like this one.
Lori Rotskoff is a cultural historian and the author of Love on the Rocks: Men, Women, and Alcohol in Post-World War II America. She has taught at Yale, Sarah Lawrence College, and the Barnard Center for Research on Women.