Possibly some people today may not have heard of Mrs Beeton, who in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, was a household name. She was well known for Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, published in 1859 – 61, which contained everything a prosperous Victorian housewife, would need to know for running the home. The public then and in the years that followed, visualized her as a matronly cook, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Isabella Mary Mayson was born 14th March 1836, in Milk Lane, London. Her father died when she was young and her mother remarried, Henry Dorling, who worked as a clerk at Epsom racecourse. The family had lodgings there, and Isabella was able to see at first hand, the organisation involved in running kitchens, that catered for large numbers of people.
On 10th July 1856 Isabella married Samuel Beeton, a publisher of books and magazines, and she started writing articles on cookery, to be included in his publications. Isabella lived a surprisingly modern married life, commuting with her husband into the London office by train from Pinner. She also made annual trips to Paris, enabling her to write articles on fashion. At the same time, in the short space of eight years,
Isabella had numerous miscarriages and still births, giving birth to four sons, only two of which, survived to adulthood. These experiences were excessive even at a time of high infant mortality rate. Isabella died in 1865 at the age of twenty eight following the birth of her youngest son.
Isabella ‘s publishing success, while facing these health difficulties , was therefore a tremendous achievement. Her famous book on Household Management contained over 1,112 pages, with many coloured illustrations and nine hundred recipes. She taste tested these recipes in her kitchen and in the severe winter of 1858, handed out a nourishing beef and vegetable broth, to poor families for a penny a quart.
Nevertheless, her skill was not in cooking, but in collecting and editing material for the book. In later years, the two sons who survived to reach adulthood, heard some mockery of the scale of the ingredients in some of the recipes. However Mrs Beeton was writing for very large Victorian families, who would require dishes made, for example with twelve eggs!
Samuel Beeton, Isabella’s widower, continued to promote the image of her as a matronly cook, in order to publicise the book, and that is the image of her that has persisted throughout history.