Published in 1861, Beeton’s Book of Household Management is perhaps one of the most famous non-fiction books to come out of the 19th century. At over one thousand pages long, it was the first publication of its kind to address all aspects of household management, covering everything from cooking and cleaning to childrearing and animal husbandry. It even includes a section on the law, providing the inquiring housewife with general information on leaseholds, the legal rights and obligations between husband and wife, and the questionable validity of an I.O.U.
In the first year alone, Beeton’s Book of Household Management sold more than 60,000 copies. Over the next decade, it would sell 2 million more. The book Voices of Victorian England, edited by John Wagner, explains the enormous popularity of Beeton’s Book of Household Management, stating:
“By the 1850s, middle-class wives were expected to frugally and efficiently run their husband’s households, and thus had to be skilled in such tasks as hiring, firing, and supervising servants; planning and cooking meals; dealing with tradesmen; and teaching, nursing, and disciplining children. Because many girls were no longer automatically learning these skills from their mothers, there existed a need for a practical handbook on household management, which the Beetons recognized and sought to meet.”
Isabella Beeton was only twenty-five at the time she wrote Beeton’s Book of Household Management. Married to publisher Samuel Beeton, she was a working journalist herself. She began her career in 1857 by contributing three articles a month to The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, one of her husband’s most popular periodicals. By 1860, she was one of the magazine’s editors, as well as its fashion correspondent. Parts of Beeton’s Book of Household Management originally appeared in The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine. Explaining her reasons for expanding those separately published columns into one, comprehensive guide, the Encyclopedia of British Writers quotes Beeton as saying:
“What moved me, in the first instance, to attempt a work like this, was the discomfort and suffering which I had seen brought upon men and women by household mismanagement. I have always thought that there is no more fruitful source of family discontent than a housewife’s badly cooked dinners and untidy ways.”
Beeton’s Book of Household Management was not the first book of its kind. In 1845, English cook Eliza Acton published Cookery for Private Families and in 1848 French chef Alexis Soyer published The Modern Housewife. Beeton’s book, however, far eclipsed those of her predecessors. Not only did it cover every aspect of household management, Beeton’s particular “tone and form of address” offered inspiration and assurance to her readers. As the book Consuming Culture in the Long Nineteenth Century explains:
“Any woman who felt her position to be unimportant and useless could be persuaded by the strength of Mrs. Beeton’s rhetoric: the mistress is ‘the first and last, the Alpha and Omega in the government of her establishment’ and ‘it is by her conduct that its whole internal policy is regulated.’ In her opening sentence, Mrs. Beeton compares the mistress of the house to ‘a Commander of an Army’ who attains the ‘highest rank’ of the female character when she enters into knowledge of household duties.”
It was not only the rhetoric that made Beeton’s book a Victorian phenomenon. Her guide included innovations that changed the face of cookbooks for generations to come. For example, Voices in Victorian England reports that Beeton was the first writer to place the list of ingredients at the start of the recipe. She was also the first writer to supply recommended cooking times. This was all part and parcel of Isabella Beeton’s genius for “compiling and organizing information.” She was not an accomplished cook herself. In fact, very few of the recipes in her book are her own. Even so, she possessed a talent for making the recipes of others easier to follow and conveying ideas on every aspect of household management to a middle-class audience without challenging “the more conventional notion of bourgeois femininity.”
Upon its publication in 1861, Beeton’s Book of Household Management was met with instant acclaim. A review in the November 9, 1861 edition of the Edinburgh Evening Courant closes by declaring:
“Mrs. Beeton has endeavored to adapt her book to nearly all circumstances and conditions of life. She shows that, while luxurious repasts and sumptuous hospitalities rightly belong to the high and wealthy, there is no monopoly of good digestion or of appetite, and that enjoyment may be found in a ragout of yesterday’s cold meat, and even a relish imparted to our traditional ‘kailbrose.’ It is on the cook rather than on the materials, on the preparation rather than the cost, that a good dinner mainly depends; and hence the value of a book like this, which duly studied by mistress and cook may yield us a different and enjoyable dinner every day, whether our means be great or small, and whether one dish or twenty be set before us.”
Recipes were, indeed, a large component of Beeton’s Book of Household Management. Beeton provides instructions for the preparations of staples like meat, potatoes, and various puddings. She also provides recipes for foods which are very much of the moment today, such as boiled sea kale. In addition, Beeton advises on the best diet for livestock, the dangers of ‘rust’ in bacon and ‘rot’ in rabbits, and the perils of poisonous mushrooms. In the final segment of her cookery section, Beeton even includes recipes for beverages, such as the following for Cowslip Wine:
Perhaps the best bits of Beeton’s Book of Household Management, at least in my humble opinion, are those sections where she imparts advice to Victorian housewives. For instance, in the first pages of the hefty tome, she writes:
“Early rising is one of the most Essential Qualities which enter into good Household Management, as it is not only the parent of health, but of innumerable other advantages. Indeed, when a mistress is an early riser, it is almost certain that her house will be orderly and well-managed. On the contrary, if She remain in bed till a late hour, then the domestics, who, as we have before observed, invariably partake somewhat of their mistress’s character, will surely become sluggards.”
And later, in her chapter on Domestic Servants, she addresses the lady’s maid, advising her on her duties to her mistress and providing helpful recipes to assist her in her work, such as the following recipe for shampoo:
The chapter on Domestic Servants also provides guidelines for the hiring and firing of servants, the writing of a character reference, and the respective wages commonly paid for each position in the household. For those of us who write novels set in the 19th century, this section of the book is invaluable.
On February 6, 1865, less than four years after the publication of Beeton’s Book of Household Management, Isabella Beeton died from puerperal fever contracted during the birth of her fourth child. She was only twenty-eight years old. Samuel Beeton initially suppressed news of her death so that he could continue to publish under her now famous name. This strategy was ultimately not a successful one. Within only a few weeks, newspapers were printing reports of her death. The following appeared in the February 18, 1865 edition of London’s Illustrated Times:
Beeton’s Book of Household Management has been in continuous print since it was first published in 1861. Now popularly known as Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, it has remained a perpetual bestseller and can be purchased in its various incarnations from booksellers all over the world (*though being a purist, I advise the original edition which is currently free in the public domain). If you are at all curious about Victorian life, I highly recommend you give it a look. It is much, much more than a mere 19th century cookbook.
**Author’s Note: This article was originally published on the English Historical Fiction Authors’ Blog in November.