Monday, November 19, 2007

The Short Life & Long Times of Mrs Beeton

I have wanted to read The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton for quite a while. For some reason Mrs Beeton has always been an historical characterthat appealed to me. So, when I spotted a virtually untouched copy of thebook by Kathryn Hughes in the window of a second hand bookshop, I just hadto snap it up. I do not normally read historical non-fiction; and I am muchslower at reading it than I am at novel reading - save, Lady Chatterley's Lover where the dense writing took me an age to plough through. Anyhow,to the book...

Isabel Mayson married Sam Beeton in 1857 He gave her syphilis on their honeymoon - how generous! Sam had worked in publishing since he was a young teenager and, by the time of his marriage, was publishing a number of magazines including the Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine. Soon after their marriage, Isabel became an active contributor to the magazine editing the cooking and fashion sections. Isabel suffered a seriesof miscarriages and lost her first little boy at only a few months of age (all symptoms of the syphilis from which she was, unknowingly, suffering). It was around this time that Sam suggested (perhaps as a distraction) that Isabel compile a book of household hints. Compile is the right word here because the book was copied either verbatim or with very loose paraphrasing from existing references. Occasionally, passing acknowledgement was given to the information's original source but, for the most part, Isabel's resources went unacknowledged. Originally the book was published in parts and it was only after Isabel's death at the age of 28 (in childbirth) that it was published as a complete volume.

One of the recurring themes in the book was class. Isabel Beeton's grandparents came from working class backgrounds. By the time Isabelwas born her grandparents and hence parents had made it solidly into thelower middle class. Her father died when Isabel was only 5 and her mother remarried - Mr Dorling, a man who was up-and-coming in the racing world. Mr Dorling's skill in managing the Epsom racetrack brought the family considerable wealth and improved their social status to such an extent that they became 'upper middle class'. Isabel's grandmother had worked in the family business, but her mother did not (a mark of her class). In marrying Sam and, by necessity,working in his business Isabel was perceived by her family to have slipped in social standing. But, Kathryn Hughes points out that it was precisely this 'slip' that allowed Isabel to use her talents in writing and finance (she was the money manager for Sam's business).

Interestingly, given its lasting fame, Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management was not an instant hit. Indeed, when Sam became bankrupt and had to sell off his titles in the late 1860s he seems not to have placed any value on Mrs Beeton's book. It was only about 20 years after it was written, and a number of appendages later, that the book began to be as recognised as it is today.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your review. It seems to me Mrs Beeton had a rather sad life. Interesting how so many people relied on her, when her work was just a compilation of other's.