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In Victorian England there was only one fail-safe authority on matters ranging from fashion to puddings to scullery maids: Beeton’s Book of Household Management. In this delightful, superbly researched biography, award-winning historian Kathryn Hughes pulls back the lace curtains to reveal the woman behind the book--Mrs. Beeton, the first domestic diva of the modern age--a In Victorian England there was only one fail-safe authority on matters ranging from fashion to puddings to scullery maids: Beeton’s Book of Household Management. In this delightful, superbly researched biography, award-winning historian Kathryn Hughes pulls back the lace curtains to reveal the woman behind the book--Mrs. Beeton, the first domestic diva of the modern age--and explores the life of the book itself. Isabella Beeton was a twenty-one-year-old newlywed with only six months’ experience running her own home when--coaxed by her husband, a struggling publisher--she began to compile her book of recipes and domestic advice. The aspiring mother hardly suspected that her name would become synonymous with housewifery for generations.  Nor would the women who turned to the book for guidance ever have guessed that its author lived in a simple house in the suburbs with a single maid-of-all-work instead of presiding over a well-run estate. Isabella would die at twenty-eight, shortly after the book's publication, never knowing the extent of her legacy. As her survivors faced bankruptcy, sexual scandal and a bitter family feud that lasted more than a century, Mrs. Beeton’s book became an institution. For an exploding population of the newly affluent, it prescribed not only how to cook and clean but ways to cope with the social flux of the emerging consumer culture: how to plan a party for ten, whip up a hair pomade or calculate how much money was needed to permit the hiring of a footman. In the twentieth century, Mrs. Beeton would be accused of plagiarism, blamed for the dire state of British cookery and used to market everything from biscuits to meat pies. This elegant, revelatory portrait of a lady journalist, as she lived and as she existed in the minds of her readers, is also a vivid picture of Victorian home life and its attendant anxieties, nostalgia, and aspirations--not so different from those felt in America today.


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In Victorian England there was only one fail-safe authority on matters ranging from fashion to puddings to scullery maids: Beeton’s Book of Household Management. In this delightful, superbly researched biography, award-winning historian Kathryn Hughes pulls back the lace curtains to reveal the woman behind the book--Mrs. Beeton, the first domestic diva of the modern age--a In Victorian England there was only one fail-safe authority on matters ranging from fashion to puddings to scullery maids: Beeton’s Book of Household Management. In this delightful, superbly researched biography, award-winning historian Kathryn Hughes pulls back the lace curtains to reveal the woman behind the book--Mrs. Beeton, the first domestic diva of the modern age--and explores the life of the book itself. Isabella Beeton was a twenty-one-year-old newlywed with only six months’ experience running her own home when--coaxed by her husband, a struggling publisher--she began to compile her book of recipes and domestic advice. The aspiring mother hardly suspected that her name would become synonymous with housewifery for generations.  Nor would the women who turned to the book for guidance ever have guessed that its author lived in a simple house in the suburbs with a single maid-of-all-work instead of presiding over a well-run estate. Isabella would die at twenty-eight, shortly after the book's publication, never knowing the extent of her legacy. As her survivors faced bankruptcy, sexual scandal and a bitter family feud that lasted more than a century, Mrs. Beeton’s book became an institution. For an exploding population of the newly affluent, it prescribed not only how to cook and clean but ways to cope with the social flux of the emerging consumer culture: how to plan a party for ten, whip up a hair pomade or calculate how much money was needed to permit the hiring of a footman. In the twentieth century, Mrs. Beeton would be accused of plagiarism, blamed for the dire state of British cookery and used to market everything from biscuits to meat pies. This elegant, revelatory portrait of a lady journalist, as she lived and as she existed in the minds of her readers, is also a vivid picture of Victorian home life and its attendant anxieties, nostalgia, and aspirations--not so different from those felt in America today.

30 review for The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton: The First Domestic Goddess

  1. 5 out of 5

    Katharine Holden

    Interesting to find out that the Victorian-era Mrs. Beeton was a real person and that she was a young wife working FT in her husband's publishing company when she wrote her household management book. I think a lot of people assumed she was a marketing ploy, like Betty Crocker, especially because Mrs. Beeton keeps being updated for the times. She even has a Twitter account now. However, the interesting stuff in this book I gleaned from the inside front cover. The book itself is boring overall, wi Interesting to find out that the Victorian-era Mrs. Beeton was a real person and that she was a young wife working FT in her husband's publishing company when she wrote her household management book. I think a lot of people assumed she was a marketing ploy, like Betty Crocker, especially because Mrs. Beeton keeps being updated for the times. She even has a Twitter account now. However, the interesting stuff in this book I gleaned from the inside front cover. The book itself is boring overall, with many partial sentence quotes that just aren't very interesting. The author kept drawing conclusions that the partial quotes didn't seem to support, so that was distracting. Mrs. Beeton doesn't come to life in these pages. Perhaps if her letters had been quoted in full, she might have. The author's speculation that Mrs. Beeton's husband infected her with syphilis is based on the author's suppositions and inferences; she then presents it as gospel. For all I know she may indeed have had syphilis but I would have liked more details about the disease and more expert knowledge presented to me so that I could make my own decision. Ultimately, this book suffers from a lack of information. There simply isn't a lot of information to give much scope to a biography of Mrs. Beeton. Although her book sold well in her lifetime, this was fortunate because her husband was a poor businessman, she wasn't the subject of many interviews or one of the major celebrities of her day. So there's little published information for a biographer to use. And there doesn't seem to be many first-hand accounts and records surviving to do much with. The author often quotes from sources about other people to give us an idea of some aspect of Mrs. Beeton's life. She starts sounding desperate after a while, as when she she tells us the household details of the people who lived in one of Mrs. Beeton's residences after she and her family moved out. Considering that the people lived there after Mrs. Beeton and were much wealthier and higher in social status than Mrs. Beeton, is a description of their household much help in envisioning Mrs. Beeton's much less wealthy household? I think Mrs. Beeton deserved a better biography than this. But I'm not sure there's enough available material out there to write a better biography about her.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Antonomasia

    [4.5] Not simply a very good popular biography, a fascinating social history of the Victorian up-and-coming middle class in London and the south east, a history of mid-nineteenth century publishing, and a survey of British home cooking trends of the past 200 years, using the life of Mrs. Beeton and related historiography as a focus. The clue is in the title: Isabella isn't even alive for substantial chunks of the book, Tristram Shandy-like. After all, she only lived to be 28 and her work was an [4.5] Not simply a very good popular biography, a fascinating social history of the Victorian up-and-coming middle class in London and the south east, a history of mid-nineteenth century publishing, and a survey of British home cooking trends of the past 200 years, using the life of Mrs. Beeton and related historiography as a focus. The clue is in the title: Isabella isn't even alive for substantial chunks of the book, Tristram Shandy-like. After all, she only lived to be 28 and her work was an anthology which wouldn't gain its full influence until decades later, plus some magazine journalism. Victorian history is one of the eras I like least, but Kathryn Hughes writes about it so well that, from her, I enjoy it as much as many others do. (At one point she comments on a historiographical trend I fully admit subscribing to: once again, the long eighteenth century has been reinvented as an era of social, sexual and 'modern' freedoms, scandalously stamped upon by the bad-tempered, repressive and philistine Victorians. Though I certainly acknowledge that the C18th judicial system was brutal, executing people for trifles [theft of], and that political representation left plenty to be desired.) I loved Hughes' biography of George Eliot (still can't fathom why I got rid of my copy), bought the first edition hardback and paperback of her Mrs B in 2005 and 2006 respectively, but didn't manage to read it all the way through until now. (In 05-07 I was too tired and too busy to finish it, plus I felt an unwanted doominess from reading it near the age that the subject died.) Was quite shocked to see that Hughes hasn't published anything substantial since – I hoped and assumed there would be at least one more great biog to read by now. If she has any fault as a historian it's inferring and extrapolating a little too much in ways that suit her. Occasionally I imagined imitating my excellent sixth-form history tutors, underlining a sentence or two and writing “tenuous”, “tendentious”, or both, above. But this is a biography for general sale (all the press praise comes from newspapers not historical journals) and these leaps of interpretation are part of what make it great fun to read, and not merely a dry recitation of what is actually contained in the scant and sometimes conflicting extant evidence about Isabella Beeton. If that's what you care about though, Hughes also makes it pretty clear what is and isn't there. She was so dedicated to the project she even bought many of the Beetons' papers to stop them being squirrelled away by private collectors who wouldn't allow research access. It's a very British book, assuming the reader will have heard of cookery writers such as Delia Smith, Elizabeth David and Clarissa Dickson-Wright, as well understanding various other cultural tropes, and agreeing that the reputation and what's effectively franchising of Mrs. Beeton is just as interesting as the woman herself. (This presumably explains the various negative reviews on here from Americans who read the book after seeing a TV programme.) There's a good survey of how previous biographers, more or less under the control of Beeton relatives, have treated Mr and Mrs B, and their various biases. Hughes seems to aim for balance but I get the impression that, though not so strongly as Nancy Spain (whom I'd definitely somehow heard of even before the first time I opened this book) she is angled slightly against Isabella's husband Sam. Though I have a bias of my own, seeing in the partnership of organiser Isabella, by turns highly capable and emotionally needy, with the mercurial, slightly rakish, idea-driven Sam, something of the relationships that meant most to me. (However, in her letters she bossily says things I'd have been too scared to say to such a type.) Most of the failings placed at Sam's door can be seen as features of the time. That Victorian doctors said syphilis ceased to be infectious after only two years, not the correct five, and the lack of effective understanding of prevention, or any cure, of same, isn't the fault of one sufferer. In work, he was already unusual in involving Isabella in many aspects of his publishing business, but her involvement was still undoubtedly constrained by general views on the role of women: if she had an even greater say in the financial management and deal-making it is likely that it would have done much better, during her lifetime at least. He was a big-picture / creative type not an accountant and detail manager, and that type can do fine if they let someone capable handle the practical and money stuff for them. (Incidentally, besides the famous Book of Household Management he also started that another staple of the British Imperial establishment: Boy's Own magazine. Privately progressive in his politics, he made wily choices of market-driven respectability, but these publications would be sold on due to bankruptcy. His old canniness about public taste gave way as the neurological effects of tertiary syphilis in his final years made him uninhibited about publishing politically radical satires and erotic readers' letters – on tight-lacing fetish and whipping - in the publications he continued to manage; he also became excessively litigious.) It wasn't one of Hughes' aims but this book, even when I only read the first half years ago, gave me a new understanding of Victorian prudery. The insistence that middle-class men be able to provide and furnish a house for their wives meant that they often didn't marry until they were 30. In the meantime, many of them had sex with prostitutes and caught syphilis. Advised by doctors that if they waited two years they wouldn't infect their virginal bride who'd been dutifully bored, ignorant and cloistered in her parents' house, they married after that time and infected the poor woman too, who generally had a string of miscarriages for the next five to seven years. After that time, healthy children were a possibility, but one or both parents might still succumb to tertiary syphilis. (Isabella Beeton died not of that but of puerperal fever after giving birth to her second healthy child – and she'd been fit and healthy enough to go hillwalking a few weeks earlier. The Beetons' were blighted by infectious disease.) Increased awareness of the prevalence of syphilis and its effects, especially among campaigers for women, before effective prevention and cure were available, was evidently a part of what drove the notorious puritanism of the nineteenth century, itself an understandable progression from the various currents of thought existing at the time. Hughes has a careful eye for the peculiarities of contemporary concepts of plagiarism and copyright, in which academic culture and postmodernism acknowledge the patchwork nature of texts, yet there is great legal stringency and decrying of unoriginality in certain areas. (I thought of GR posts in which someone might use multiple reaction gifs from TV shows in response to a YA author being accused of plagiarism.) Mrs Beeton had from the 1990s onwards been quite frequently criticised – when she might have been a greater part of the domesticity revival – because she lifted much of her material from other sources, especially Eliza Acton. Acton, however, was only one of many books she used; Acton and most other cookery writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth century copied a lot. Mrs B wasn't doing anything out of the ordinary for her time – her book just got lucky in becoming the most famous. (I described it as an anthology at the beginning of the post, which seemed the best way to reflect that it was short on original material yet still legit.) I've been drawn most to this book at times when I've found my own horizons narrowed towards prim domestic occupation. First time round though I didn't have the energy to finish the book – I had managed to stay in a job for more than six months without having to take huge amounts of sick leave – though a few months later I'd have to leave, whilst taking three months to recover from a severe flu - was resigned to a make-do relationship I should never have been in at all, and spent my weekends doing housework because I barely had the energy to move in the evenings (it took me a whole weekend, with rests, just to clean a one bedroom flat). Not much later when things were more exciting again I wanted to * have read * it because I realised that my low energy levels and liking for detail – though not my natural interests - made me a good fit for fashionable cupcake domesticity, but again I couldn't manage to read a big book like this and do much else. Hughes points out that domesticity became fashionable again only when it could be voluntary. (The yummy mummies are like Marie Antoinette playing shepherdess, I've long cynically thought – being someone who simply finds more intellectual or artistic occupations, and life out in the world, more interesting, and who doesn't consider she should value boring stuff just because it was traditionally female.) The trendiness and imagery around cookery and housework, even if it is a bit twee, can at least make it, or a frugal version of it, seem like a consolation prize rather than mere drudgery, when very little else is possible. (Whether it's because of health, or those who are stuck because of unemployment or because the job wouldn't pay for the childcare.) Sceptical, yes, though I confess - and am lucky enough to have been able to afford - I bought a fucking Boden jumper recently, albeit second hand. It was brighter and less depressing than the grey and brown ones...)

  3. 4 out of 5

    Beth Ann

    You know that moment when you are at a party and you see someone that you really dislike but due to the constraints of polite society you are forced to get along with them? That's how I began to feel about finishing this book. I started to actively hate it. But, since it was on my list of 12 books that have been lingering on my to be read list, I really wanted to finish it and be done with it. Only about half the book's problem is in the writing. The author seemed unclear about the goal of the b You know that moment when you are at a party and you see someone that you really dislike but due to the constraints of polite society you are forced to get along with them? That's how I began to feel about finishing this book. I started to actively hate it. But, since it was on my list of 12 books that have been lingering on my to be read list, I really wanted to finish it and be done with it. Only about half the book's problem is in the writing. The author seemed unclear about the goal of the book. Mostly a biography of the Beetons (Both Mrs and Mr), the author cannot seem to leave it to that. She has added in chapters termed "Interlude" where she discusses aspects of Mrs. Beeton's famous book in a historical/cultural context. Oh how I wish she had written an entire book of these Interludes! THAT would have been a joy to read! Instead we encounter the other half of the problem. These people are not interesting in the slightest. Though they certainly have some tragic and dramatic circumstances, they are far from even somewhat exceptional or interesting examples from their time period. The lasting legacy of Mrs Beeton's book is the only reason this book was written. The lasting legacy of Mrs Beeton's name is why this book was written. To credit the author, she does a good job of investigating and clearing up mysteries and questions that were clouded and caused by family controlled biographies in the past. She makes a case for syphilitic infection being the cause of so much drama surrounding Mrs. Beeton's childbearing difficulties. There is also a discussion of the development of the famous book. Much is made of Mrs Beeton's "borrowing" of much of her material from other cookery books. I wonder why the author doesn't make a case for the fact that cookbooks are continuing to be written in much the same way today. An ingredient change or tweak in preparation and the recipe is considered the property of the next writer. It's common now and was then. Perhaps she just wants to make it clear how common it was then, and she does a good job of this. I cannot recommend this book at all. Never have I been so happy for the biographic subjects to die. Especially Mr Beeton - who is a bit of a villain in this story. Wading through the last chapter of a recap of the abuses other biographers and writers have subjected the Beetons to over the last decades, was nearly painful. Don't read this book. Read a synopsis of this book and save yourself the trouble.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Katrina

    I was inspired to read this after watching a Sophie Dahl TV show about Mrs Beeton, which was fascinating and used this book as a source. It was interesting enough that I thought I'd like to know more. Turns out, I was wrong. The most interesting parts of the book for me (about Isabella's early life and marriage) were adequately covered by the TV show, which also mixed in some visits to key places and tested a few of the recipes and remedies. I did not really care enough to require the level of de I was inspired to read this after watching a Sophie Dahl TV show about Mrs Beeton, which was fascinating and used this book as a source. It was interesting enough that I thought I'd like to know more. Turns out, I was wrong. The most interesting parts of the book for me (about Isabella's early life and marriage) were adequately covered by the TV show, which also mixed in some visits to key places and tested a few of the recipes and remedies. I did not really care enough to require the level of detail presented here about, for example, the lives of the parents and grandparents of both Isabella and her husband, or the lengthy descriptions of exactly which parts of Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management were borrowed (cited or uncited) from which other books.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Robyn Philip

    I thought this would be a fascinating read, and was really prepared to give it a number of opportunities to engage me, but no. There is a wealth of historical research in there, for which I thank Hughes, but reading it is like swimming through wet cement. I notice other reviewers didn't have this problem, but for me it was both a problem of selection of material, structure and writing style. I wanted to hear about Mrs Beeton's personal story right from the get go, but Hughes gives so much detail I thought this would be a fascinating read, and was really prepared to give it a number of opportunities to engage me, but no. There is a wealth of historical research in there, for which I thank Hughes, but reading it is like swimming through wet cement. I notice other reviewers didn't have this problem, but for me it was both a problem of selection of material, structure and writing style. I wanted to hear about Mrs Beeton's personal story right from the get go, but Hughes gives so much detail about the extended family first, I'd forget what or who the story was about and where it was going. There's heaps of social history buried in there, and I'd like to get to it, but it's too much work. I'm sorry, but 'Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously' by Julie Powell is more my style when it comes to revealing the secrets of the kitchen goddess.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Leslie Goddard

    I was excited to read this one , but -- wow -- what a slog. Overwhelmed and staggering under the burden of way too many facts, it buries you. I am not sure who the intended reader is. Maybe a later researcher looking for a reference book? Certainly not someone who knows of Mrs Beeton's cookbooks. and wants an engaging, lively biography. The biography is there, but buried in so much detail heaped on detail it makes a fascinating story tedious going. I was excited to read this one , but -- wow -- what a slog. Overwhelmed and staggering under the burden of way too many facts, it buries you. I am not sure who the intended reader is. Maybe a later researcher looking for a reference book? Certainly not someone who knows of Mrs Beeton's cookbooks. and wants an engaging, lively biography. The biography is there, but buried in so much detail heaped on detail it makes a fascinating story tedious going.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Nightwitch

    As other readers have mentioned, very very long and with a tendency to wander off on long digressions, some of which - e.g. the detailed discussions of Isabella's family - I found interesting, and others - e.g. the overview of fictionalized depictions of the Beetons throughout the twentieth century - less so. Isabella Beeton's life was so short that she herself had little to do with the book's wild success and development, but I felt like the book kind of ran out of steam when she died; the hist As other readers have mentioned, very very long and with a tendency to wander off on long digressions, some of which - e.g. the detailed discussions of Isabella's family - I found interesting, and others - e.g. the overview of fictionalized depictions of the Beetons throughout the twentieth century - less so. Isabella Beeton's life was so short that she herself had little to do with the book's wild success and development, but I felt like the book kind of ran out of steam when she died; the history of the Beeton publishing enterprises was much less interesting, and Hughes (like many previous biographers, it seems) didn't particularly like Sam Beeton. One horrifying fact I did learn from this particular book, though, is that it seems like mid-Victorians who didn't have syphilis were the exception to the rule. Ugh, history!

  8. 4 out of 5

    Deodand

    Is it possible to make a good meal out of appetizers? Sure. The author does that here, as the source material is admittedly thin. This book is more about Sam Beeton than it is about Isabella but that is more than fair - he was the force behind "Mrs. Beeton" for far longer than she was. This was really interesting and a surprisingly compelling read. I wasn't expecting it to grab the reader the way it does. If you are interested in early Victorian lifestyles of the middling, you would enjoy this - Is it possible to make a good meal out of appetizers? Sure. The author does that here, as the source material is admittedly thin. This book is more about Sam Beeton than it is about Isabella but that is more than fair - he was the force behind "Mrs. Beeton" for far longer than she was. This was really interesting and a surprisingly compelling read. I wasn't expecting it to grab the reader the way it does. If you are interested in early Victorian lifestyles of the middling, you would enjoy this - no need to be a cookbook enthusiast.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Gray

    This entertaining, well-written book is only half a "biography" of Isabella Beeton -- of the 400 pages, only about 200 are actually about her, and there is often a frustrating lack of detail or solidity to parts of her story. But it's not the author's fault. Given the scarcity of information available about Beeton, Hughes did an excellent job of pulling together the most detailed biography she could, and the extensive (and extremely useful) bibliography bears this out. The bibliography also cast This entertaining, well-written book is only half a "biography" of Isabella Beeton -- of the 400 pages, only about 200 are actually about her, and there is often a frustrating lack of detail or solidity to parts of her story. But it's not the author's fault. Given the scarcity of information available about Beeton, Hughes did an excellent job of pulling together the most detailed biography she could, and the extensive (and extremely useful) bibliography bears this out. The bibliography also casts doubt on other reviewers' complaints that Hughes made up various assertions about Beeton, such as her proposition that Beeton was infected with syphilis by her husband. The sources with which Hughes backs up this assertion are convincing. As for the other 200 pages, there's rather a lot of information about Sam and Isabella's extended families, the only material that became marginally tedious -- but it adds useful context in which to understand the woman and her life. There is also a great deal of interesting information about journalism and publishing practices in the Victorian era, and other aspects of Victorian culture, which again enrich the context for Isabella's life and the significance of her work. For example, I especially enjoyed the story of how the Beetons obtained colored fashion plates from Paris for their publications, and their experiences traveling abroad to acquire the plates. One can't begin to know a person without understanding the society in which she lived, and for those interested in the Victorian era in general, this book will be a treat. As this book is also an analysis and history of Beeton's Book of Household Management, it follows the evolution of the book from its creation through its many alterations, divisions, formats, abridgments, brand extensions, and so on into the present day. And so it's more than the story of one famous book -- it's a look at ways in which our culture engages with books in general.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Alison C

    North Americans may not know of the famous Mrs. Beeton, but her 1861 book, The Book of Household Management, has lasted, in various editions, into modern times in Great Britain and it's still considered the premier compendium of Victorian housekeeping and cookery; in the meantime, the person of Mrs. Beeton herself, has been mythologized beyond recognition. In The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton, Kathryn Hughes has created a wonderful biographical portrait of the real woman, who lived a North Americans may not know of the famous Mrs. Beeton, but her 1861 book, The Book of Household Management, has lasted, in various editions, into modern times in Great Britain and it's still considered the premier compendium of Victorian housekeeping and cookery; in the meantime, the person of Mrs. Beeton herself, has been mythologized beyond recognition. In The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton, Kathryn Hughes has created a wonderful biographical portrait of the real woman, who lived a short and hectic life. She died at age 28 of puerperal fever, following the birth of her second surviving son - but had numerous miscarriages and a couple of live births that did not survive due to the syphilis with which her husband, Sam, had infected her upon their marriage; who would have suspected such an ignominious and tawdry life story about a figure who became so iconic and emblematic of early Victorian times and society? Hughes does a marvelous job of bringing this woman to life, along with her numerous relations, her husband and his numerous relations and business rivals and partners. I've always enjoyed history - not the "dates of wars" and "names of generals" type of history, but the "this is how people in this society in this time lived and died" form of retelling past times, and Hughes uses a great many primary sources (she was able to buy all the extant letters between the various parties, for example) and sheds light on secondary sources (such as the biography written by Beeton's great-niece, Nancy Spain, an interesting character in her own right). As a reviewer in the Observer put it, this biography is "so masterful and scholarly and wise there will never need to be another." Recommended!

  11. 5 out of 5

    Macy

    I'm seconding Aura in choosing this book -- it's a stellar, surprisingly readable biography. Here's the review I wrote of it when it was published: “Beeton’s Book of Household Management,” a colossal compendium of recipes and domestic advice—on topics ranging from the dangers of undomesticated swine to the legal rights of married women—went on sale in 1861, was reprinted endlessly, and made the name “Mrs. Beeton” a byword for Victorian domesticity. But this magnificent biography of Isabella Beeto I'm seconding Aura in choosing this book -- it's a stellar, surprisingly readable biography. Here's the review I wrote of it when it was published: “Beeton’s Book of Household Management,” a colossal compendium of recipes and domestic advice—on topics ranging from the dangers of undomesticated swine to the legal rights of married women—went on sale in 1861, was reprinted endlessly, and made the name “Mrs. Beeton” a byword for Victorian domesticity. But this magnificent biography of Isabella Beeton, who died at the age of twenty-eight, reveals a more unconventional figure. Married to a chaotic publisher of popular magazines, Beeton began working alongside her husband partly out of financial necessity. Her famous work was simply one in a series of commissioned volumes, and was mostly put together from other sources. Hughes shows how the book emerged at a time when housewives were struggling to reconcile a vanishing “hand-made” world with a new one of consumer choice. Beeton’s achievement was to establish the housewife, as, in her words, “a person of far more importance in a community than she usually thinks she is.”

  12. 4 out of 5

    Suzanne

    Another book I began but did not finish. I was inspired to read this by the PBS dramatization, and wondered when I saw it how the author had managed to fill that many pages with the life of a woman who died at 28. The answer is that she fills the first half of the book with the lives of the grandparents and parents and other extended family of both Isabella Mayson and Samuel Beeton, and social commentary on the times. I can't decide whether this is deliberate padding or the work was based on a d Another book I began but did not finish. I was inspired to read this by the PBS dramatization, and wondered when I saw it how the author had managed to fill that many pages with the life of a woman who died at 28. The answer is that she fills the first half of the book with the lives of the grandparents and parents and other extended family of both Isabella Mayson and Samuel Beeton, and social commentary on the times. I can't decide whether this is deliberate padding or the work was based on a dissertation. I initially found this look at the working-class world of 19th century England fascinating, but soon got lost in the extensive genealogies (a family tree or other chart is a necessity!) and irritated by the constant use of such phrases as "she must have thought" and "she would have known" and "she might have met." Such speculation is inevitable and even permissable when writing history, but only when it is supported by extensive evidence, which Hughes does not present. If she wanted to indulge in these flights of fancy, she should have written historical fiction or fictional history.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Judy

    I was fascinated by how much detail the book goes into about Isabella Beeton's life as a journalist, working alongside her husband - and showing just how she put the famous Book of Household Management together. The TV film mentioned that most of the recipes were lifted from other books, but here Hughes shows how much skill even this involved - the weaving together of material from many other books and sources into a work which, all the same, has a distinctive voice. (Sometimes she analyses a wh I was fascinated by how much detail the book goes into about Isabella Beeton's life as a journalist, working alongside her husband - and showing just how she put the famous Book of Household Management together. The TV film mentioned that most of the recipes were lifted from other books, but here Hughes shows how much skill even this involved - the weaving together of material from many other books and sources into a work which, all the same, has a distinctive voice. (Sometimes she analyses a whole paragraph, showing where each bit came from - and how the attitudes shift from sentence to sentence.) As well as talking about Beeton herself, Hughes also looks at shifts in social attitudes and in what was perceived as a woman's role. She points out how women who themselves worked as professional journalists or writers ended up lecturing others about how important it was to stay at home as domestic goddesses - something which still happens today! Also loved the TV movie based on this book.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

    Really well done piece of social history. The author uses the lives of Beeton and her family to exemplify and explore the experience of middle class Victorians. The book is thoroughly researched, and very upfront and self aware of the problems with and lack of sources. It's obvious from reading the book that the author has developed a close familiarity with her materials to the point that she is fond of the historical "characters"; this sympathy only makes the narrative and the writing more enga Really well done piece of social history. The author uses the lives of Beeton and her family to exemplify and explore the experience of middle class Victorians. The book is thoroughly researched, and very upfront and self aware of the problems with and lack of sources. It's obvious from reading the book that the author has developed a close familiarity with her materials to the point that she is fond of the historical "characters"; this sympathy only makes the narrative and the writing more engaging, without ever spilling over into haigiography. Lastly, the author engages in some literary criticism, tracing the popularity and various spin offs and editions of the Book of Household Management since its initial publication to the present, examining the presence of Mrs B in the public consciousness (and the National Portrait Gallery), and doing lengthy analyses of passages in the BHM, drawing out shared assumptions and fantasies of Mrs Beeton and her peers.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Catherine

    Years ago I was given a facsimile edition of the original BHM as a birthday present by a chap who then nicked it to write a musical piece for the Stonesfield Ladies' Choral Society - not one of the adaptations that gets a mention in the final chapter. I'm not sure if I have the manuscript, but I certainly have a copy buried in a box somewhere. Anyway, to the book: easy to read - in the manner of all good biographies it wears its erudition lightly. Only reason it took me so long was because it's t Years ago I was given a facsimile edition of the original BHM as a birthday present by a chap who then nicked it to write a musical piece for the Stonesfield Ladies' Choral Society - not one of the adaptations that gets a mention in the final chapter. I'm not sure if I have the manuscript, but I certainly have a copy buried in a box somewhere. Anyway, to the book: easy to read - in the manner of all good biographies it wears its erudition lightly. Only reason it took me so long was because it's time fell around a double department inspection at school so lots of extra work. Given that the theory about why Mrs B died so young and her husband did the things he did thereafter is well-supported by the evidence and placed in the context of the time, as the author takes pains to do, methinks it is sad rather than scandalous. What is most revealing is the joint nature of Isabella and Sam's ventures and many bored readers of their publications would no doubt have envied her her freedom.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Jae

    Overstuffed biography of an iconic Victorian cookbook/household writer, as well as a social history. I enjoyed the book more when it focused on the social history, especially its treatment of publishing and women's magazines of the time. There's a lot of information in this book, especially about lower middle class Victorian life, which I mostly found fascinating but which was occasionally tedious (I'm not sure I needed the complete play by play of every squabble during Isabella and Sam Beeton's Overstuffed biography of an iconic Victorian cookbook/household writer, as well as a social history. I enjoyed the book more when it focused on the social history, especially its treatment of publishing and women's magazines of the time. There's a lot of information in this book, especially about lower middle class Victorian life, which I mostly found fascinating but which was occasionally tedious (I'm not sure I needed the complete play by play of every squabble during Isabella and Sam Beeton's engagement, and I feel as if I could find my way around Epsom blindfolded based on the very in-depth descriptions) in a very long book. Still, I am looking forward to reading more by Hughes -- The Victorian Governess looks particularly tempting.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Bookmarks Magazine

    There was good reason to keep the details of Isabella Beeton's death (and life) a secret: her book had caught the attention of Victorian England, and her widowed husband__and publisher__didn't want to break the marketing spell. Granted access to the family archives, Kathryn Hughes draws on extensive research and her previous books (George Eliot; The Victorian Governess) to unravel the life of this domestic icon. If Hughes sometimes throws too many facts and images in the way of this highly ente There was good reason to keep the details of Isabella Beeton's death (and life) a secret: her book had caught the attention of Victorian England, and her widowed husband__and publisher__didn't want to break the marketing spell. Granted access to the family archives, Kathryn Hughes draws on extensive research and her previous books (George Eliot; The Victorian Governess) to unravel the life of this domestic icon. If Hughes sometimes throws too many facts and images in the way of this highly entertaining story, she also presents a compelling picture of Victorian life.This is an excerpt from a review published in Bookmarks magazine.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer

    This book is suitable only for history nerds who already own a copy of Beeton's Book of Household Management. There is a lot of detailed discussion of what Beeton biographer X said versus biographers Y and Z, which would be tedious to a general reader. That being said, some details of Beeton's short life were really interesting; for example, her stepfather managed the racetrack at Epsom (where they run the Derby), and her family boarded several of their 21 kids at the Grandstand when racing seas This book is suitable only for history nerds who already own a copy of Beeton's Book of Household Management. There is a lot of detailed discussion of what Beeton biographer X said versus biographers Y and Z, which would be tedious to a general reader. That being said, some details of Beeton's short life were really interesting; for example, her stepfather managed the racetrack at Epsom (where they run the Derby), and her family boarded several of their 21 kids at the Grandstand when racing season was over!

  19. 4 out of 5

    Cari Skuse

    Like other reviewers, I thought that the beginning was a little long with the info on the family tree. It was good to know the background though. The rest of the book was very interesting and was well thought out. I did wish there was a little more written about the death of Bella and more of what her children remember growing up, but perhaps there was no more information found than was written. I didn't find this a hard read to get through. I found it enjoyable and a good read, especially about Like other reviewers, I thought that the beginning was a little long with the info on the family tree. It was good to know the background though. The rest of the book was very interesting and was well thought out. I did wish there was a little more written about the death of Bella and more of what her children remember growing up, but perhaps there was no more information found than was written. I didn't find this a hard read to get through. I found it enjoyable and a good read, especially about the life of Isabella and Sam Beeton and the times they lived in.

  20. 4 out of 5

    QOH

    I struggled with this book, because I kept wanting to get to the meat of the story, but that, alas, has been largely rewritten by her family, to the extent it exists. It's too long by half, perhaps to make up for the fact there simply isn't enough extant material about Mrs. Beeton. If you do want to know about what life was like for the developing lower middle/middle class family in Victorian England, this is very useful. But a tell-all it isn't, because there's not so much to tell. I struggled with this book, because I kept wanting to get to the meat of the story, but that, alas, has been largely rewritten by her family, to the extent it exists. It's too long by half, perhaps to make up for the fact there simply isn't enough extant material about Mrs. Beeton. If you do want to know about what life was like for the developing lower middle/middle class family in Victorian England, this is very useful. But a tell-all it isn't, because there's not so much to tell.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Carlie

    I wish I could say that I loved this book. I wanted to! And maybe you have to be in a researchy frame of mind or be more patient than I was feeling when I tried it. I quit. I didn't even make it through the first half! It wasn't interesting enough. Maybe my mistake was skipping the introduction where the real hook was...it sure wasn't in the first paragraph. *sigh* I wish I could say that I loved this book. I wanted to! And maybe you have to be in a researchy frame of mind or be more patient than I was feeling when I tried it. I quit. I didn't even make it through the first half! It wasn't interesting enough. Maybe my mistake was skipping the introduction where the real hook was...it sure wasn't in the first paragraph. *sigh*

  22. 4 out of 5

    Rebecca Huston

    Fantastic look at the life of a woman of the middle classes who influenced generations after her. Recommended for anyone interested in how the Victorians lived. This also inspired a film called "The Secret Life of Mrs. Beeton" For the long review, please go here: http://www.mylot.com/post/2916863/ins... Fantastic look at the life of a woman of the middle classes who influenced generations after her. Recommended for anyone interested in how the Victorians lived. This also inspired a film called "The Secret Life of Mrs. Beeton" For the long review, please go here: http://www.mylot.com/post/2916863/ins...

  23. 4 out of 5

    Carolin

    I have the Book of Household Management on my kindle but have only ever dipped in briefly. The background of this book will make it far more interesting. Mrs Beeton and the whole franchise give some fascinating background to the Victorian age, and it's a very readable book, even if you're not into cooking or the publishing industry. I have the Book of Household Management on my kindle but have only ever dipped in briefly. The background of this book will make it far more interesting. Mrs Beeton and the whole franchise give some fascinating background to the Victorian age, and it's a very readable book, even if you're not into cooking or the publishing industry.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Tamara

    An excellent review of life during the early Victorian era. If you aren't interested in Victoriana, you may find this book a bit tedious. It is fascinating from the point of view of the history of domestic management and celebrity chefs. An excellent review of life during the early Victorian era. If you aren't interested in Victoriana, you may find this book a bit tedious. It is fascinating from the point of view of the history of domestic management and celebrity chefs.

  25. 5 out of 5

    lcee

    As much as I was enjoying this book, it was such a slow read that given a three week period out of the library plus another three week renewal, I STILL didn't get through it. I may return to it at some point in the future, but for now have moved on. As much as I was enjoying this book, it was such a slow read that given a three week period out of the library plus another three week renewal, I STILL didn't get through it. I may return to it at some point in the future, but for now have moved on.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Caroline

    A very detailed look at a British cultural icon and her continuing influence on modern culture and women's domestic roles. Also: syphilis! Victoria prostitution! Racehorses! And plagiarized recipes galore. A very detailed look at a British cultural icon and her continuing influence on modern culture and women's domestic roles. Also: syphilis! Victoria prostitution! Racehorses! And plagiarized recipes galore.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Kirsten Fleetwood

    It was undoubtedly researched very very thoroughly, but too much information is not a good thing. It got totally bogged down in the background of Mrs Beeton's ancestors, and I think I gave up before she was even out of school. Sorry, I've got better things to read. It was undoubtedly researched very very thoroughly, but too much information is not a good thing. It got totally bogged down in the background of Mrs Beeton's ancestors, and I think I gave up before she was even out of school. Sorry, I've got better things to read.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Penny

    A very interesting book that gives greater historical context to the character of Mrs. Beeton. The book does divert into different topics unexpectedly, and the last few pages feel a little unfinished. However, I have enjoyed reading this book and learning more about Mrs. Beeton.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Suzy

    Intersting, a little like reading a histroy textbook. Quite hard going in places.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Kristin

    Far too scholarly for me.

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