The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton

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9781841153742: The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton
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We each of us strive for domestic bliss, and we may look to Delia and Nigella to give us tips on achieving the unattainable. Kathryn Hughes, acclaimed for her biography of George Eliot, has pulled back the curtains to look at the creator of the ultimate book on keeping house.

In Victorian England what did every middle-class housewife need to create the perfect home? ‘The Book of Household Management’. ‘Oh, but of course!’ Mrs Beeton would no doubt declare with brisk authority. But Mrs Beeton is not quite the matronly figure that has kept her name resonating 150 years after the publication of ‘The Book of Household Management’.

The famous pages of carefully costed recipes, warnings about not gossiping to visitors, and making sure you always keep your hat on in someone else’s house were indispensable in the moulding of the Victorian domestic bliss. But there are many myths surrounding the legend of Mrs Beeton. It is very possible that her book was given so much social standing through fear as she was believed to be a bit of an old dragon.

It seems though that Mrs Beeton was a series of contradictions. Kathryn Hughes reveals here that Bella Beeton was a million miles away from the stoical, middle-aged matron. She was in fact only 25 years old when she created the guide to successful family living and had only had five years experience of her own to inform her. She lived in a semi-detached house in Pinner with the bare minimum of servants. She bordered on being a workaholic, and certainly wasn’t the meek and mild little wife that her book was aimed at – more a highly intelligent and ambitious young woman. After preaching about wholesome and clean living, Bella Beeton died at the age of 28 from (contrary to her parent’s belief) bad hygiene. Kathryn Hughes sympathetically explores the irony behind Bella Beeton’s public and private image in this highly readable and informative study of Victorian lifestyle.

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Review:

'This is a wonderful book, so masterful and scholarly and wise, there will never need to be another. Hughes is an elegant writer, and a capable digger; no stone, however small or inaccessible, is left unturned.' Rachel Cooke, Observer

'This is a brilliant biography, which tells the absorbing, strange and sad story with great aplomb. Kathryn Hughes has seen quite rightly, that one of the most important parts of the story is what happened after Isabella's death and, indeed, Sam's, and the life of Mrs Beeton is continued to the present day. It is so magical a feat of imagination, of intricate learning lightly worn, that you know that Kathryn Hughes would write a wonderful novel. But this splendid book is as good as any.' Spectator

From the Author:

Q and A with Kathryn Hughes

What drew you to Mrs Beeton?
When I was doing my PhD in Victorian history I came across the fact that she died when she was 28. Like everyone, I thought she was an elderly matron. I was staggered that a girl of my age (I was 28 at the time) had not only had four pregnancies but had written a book which made her name live for ever. I wanted to know more. Also, before starting my PhD I spent three unhappy years working as a features writer on women’s magazines. The editor would come in and say: ‘We need some cookery copy.’ Cobbling it together, I learnt that it was all in the presentation and not down to an in-depth knowledge of cookery. I realised that the fact that Mrs Beeton started out knowing nothing about cookery didn’t make her a scabby fraud, just a competent magazine journalist. We have this childlike fantasy that chefs and food writers are working in a cottage industry. But no one seriously thinks Nigella is setting her alarm to soak ingredients for three hours. Of course she employs people to help her. That doesn’t make her anything other than a professional modern cook.

How do you account for your fascination with the Victorian era?
My grandparents were born in the 1880s, which was kind of unusual for someone growing up in the sixties and seventies. Whereas my schoolfriends’ grandfathers fought in the Second World War, mine fought in the First. I had a sense of having a longer cultural memory than most children. Both my grandmothers had governesses and they would tell me stories about the tricks they played on them. It was like living history, that sense that you could touch it. I somehow had a living stake in the things we learnt about at school while, for the other girls, it was the olden days.

Would you like to have lived in the Victorian era?
Yes, as long as I could have chosen the rank into which I was born. I would like to have been an Anglican vicar – I would have to have been a man – with some financial means, living in a nice country parish. I would like to have been in the intellectual loop, scientifically minded, probably with a good collection of ferns or butterflies. I’m absolutely certain that if I’d been born Victorian I would actually have been a governess – well-educated but not that well-funded. I would have been one of those slightly sulky governesses who wasn’t very good at joining in and was always dropping hints that I was a bit more artistic and sensitive than the bluff county squire or rich merchant I was working for.

Do you own any Victorian objects and, if so, which is your favourite?
My grandparents lived in those big, draughty houses where nothing was thrown out. There were big lumber rooms full of Victoriana, which I just loved rummaging through. I’ve got a big chest with ‘Cut Flowers’ written on it, which belonged to my grandfather. He was a farmer and market gardener in mid-Wales. He would pack it with daffodils and send it on the train to Paddington and on to Covent Garden. The chest has holes in it so the flowers could breathe. When I finish writing a book I don’t throw away any of the hard copies, so I’ve got all my notes from the last twelve years stashed away in that chest. The fact that it never got lost amazes me. I also have a beautiful bedspread, which my great-grandmother, a vicar’s wife, hand embroidered and hand sewed. She obviously spent long lonely nights making it. It’s so intricate. It makes me feel slightly humble because she was educated and she wasn’t making it for profit.

Are you domestic?
I absolutely love the idea of domesticity, but I am hopelessly undomesticated, which is one of the reasons I wrote the book. My mother was both very domestic and also worked (as a social worker), which was kind of unusual when I was young. She was a total craft junkie. Even today she buys her own fleeces, dyes them with acorns, twigs and berries, spins them and sells the items for quite a lot of money. I always say: ‘What was the Industrial Revolution for? It’s bonkers.’ I buy mostly organic at Fresh and Wild but, sometimes, if I’ve had a bad day writing my book, I’ll go and have a McDonald’s cheeseburger and chips. I do have a cleaner – thank God – for two hours a week.

Are you interested in crafts?
Up until the age of 14 I was mad on crafts. I knitted, crocheted, appliquéd, did macramé. I made my own clothes. I was absolutely obsessed. We lived in the deep country and there wasn’t much else to do. It wasn’t that we were poor, it was just that my parents, who had been children in the War, belonged to that generation of make-do-and-menders who held the vaguely snobbish view that anything available in a shop was slightly common. Then, at 14, I discovered Miss Selfridge and their clingy polyester blouses in swirly colours. From then on I wanted ‘shop bought’ in all its trailing-thread, gape-seamed glory. These days I buy my clothes from Harvey Nics and Primark, and I no longer spend my evenings sticking seashells onto bits of plywood. I am still fascinated by the idea of craft and domesticity, but my fascination is of the cool, analytical kind.

Have you tried Mrs Beeton’s recipes?
Yes. I’ve got to be honest, I got my mother to help me. They can taste a bit odd, but the puddings are great. Her blancmange, junket and tapioca are great and her rice pudding is gorgeous. I realised that all those junior school puddings are really, really nice when they are done properly.

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Other Popular Editions of the Same Title

9780307263735: The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton

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