I’ve been on a women in history binge lately, mainly because of my work starting the Today in Women’s History website, which officially launched a few days back. Last week, when I found myself at the library (again) I decided to check out the Masterpiece Theater’s biographical drama The Secret Life of Mrs. Beeton, for no reason other than her name sounded vaguely familiar. Of course after watching the film on this awesome woman, I had to do some additional research of my own.
Some back story: Isabella Mary Mayson was born in England in the 1836, the eldest daughter of Elizabeth Jerram, a housewife, and stepfather Henry Dorling, the first clerk to the course at Epsom Downs Racecourse. Isabella took care of the twenty siblings (yes, 20!) until she met Mr. Beeton, an entrepreneurial publisher of books and popular magazines, on a visit to London. She soon married him and after setting up a beautiful home for the newlyweds, she begins to work at his publishing house. At first, Isabella edited and contributed articles to one of the popular magazines he published, The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine. She eventually had a regular column in the publication which became quite popular and Mr. Beeton decided to publish her articles, and more she collected, into a book.
This is when she became (in my words) the Copy/Paste Queen. Only 21-years-old when she began the book later known as Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, she likely felt she did not have enough household and cooking experience to create an entire volume relying solely on her knowledge. Therefore, she decided to compile recipes and tips from a wide variety of cookbooks, magazines, newspapers and other sources into one comprehensive volume, edited to maintain similar style throughout: the first of its kind. This comprehensive, impressive work brought together the collective knowledge of many women all in an era before computers and the right click.
This was revolutionary. At a time when many women were taught household manners and cooking primarily only from their mothers, this book was golden. Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, which was compiled as a guide to all aspects of running a household in Victorian Britain, contained 2,751 entries with a wealth of cooking tips, recipes, and more. It even made cooking from a recipe easier because Isabella invented the idea of listing ingredients first and ordering steps in an easy-to-follow, simple style. Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management became a bestseller and sold millions of copies within just a few years.
Unfortunately, Isabella had little time to enjoy the popularity of her impressive work. Within a few short years, debts piled up despite the profits from Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, she suffered two miscarriages and one child’s early death, her husband turned to alcohol and gambling and her family was forced to move to a smaller apartment above the press. She died at age 28 of puerperal fever a week after the birth of her fourth child. Some documentaries have speculated (Masterpiece Theater’s The Secret Life of Mrs. Beeton included) that Isabella also had syphilis which she contracted from her husband. Such a sad end for such a hardworking, forward-thinking woman of the mid 1800s.
However, her legacy lives on. Her bestselling work has inspired a slew of revised editions for the modern age and new “Mrs. Beeton” titles include everything from Microwaving With Mrs. Beeton to Mrs. Beeton’s Healthy Eating.