Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management was a guide for middle class women on how to run a household in the Victorian period edited and part-written by Isabella Beeton. The work had been previously published in parts, and was finally published as a whole in 1861 by a publishing house founded by Isabella’s husband Samuel Beeton. Isabella was only 21 years old when the book was first published sadly she died only 7 years later, so she was never to see the full impact her work had. I have long been intrigued by this work. I was so pleased when a close friend bought me this 2000 abridged edition by Oxford World Classics for Christmas. Being an abridged edition also meant I didn’t find it as intimidating to start as I might have the original. As I’ve heard the original was nearly as thick as it was tall!
When most people think of Mrs Beeton they probably think cook book and certainly there are plenty of recipes but in actual fact Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management was written to be a comprehensive guide to all aspects of a Victorian household. The book is broken down into many sections. The first two sections are specifically directed at the mistress and/or house keeper later sections are more open and are advised could be lent to different members of the domestic staff to aid them in their work. The largest section in the middle of the book centres on the kitchen, first on the economy and facilities of the kitchen and then moves on to the actual food prepared in the kitchen. There is an individual section on each type of food followed by specific recipes for the food discussed. Which is probably why so many think of this book as a cook book. But there are also sections on domestic help, rearing children, childhood diseases, poisons, home medicine/treatment, and even basic legal matters.
Reading Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management has been a slow and steady process. I believe I started this book in July so in fact it has taken about 3 months to finish. The vast amount of subjects and information that Beeton is trying to convey meant I wanted to take my time to absorb as much as possible. The whole book is not written by Beeton the style of writing does change the most noticeable time being The Doctor and Legal Memorandum sections. Where clearly Beeton asked a doctor and lawyer to write these sections. Some see this as a negative but personally I believe Beeton was seeking to provide the most informed guide she could, Beeton is not a doctor or a lawyer so would be presumptuous for her to try to write about these subjects. The style change didn’t affect the flow of the book for me. As a whole the book is very formal and educational in style, meaning it can often come across as condescending. I doubt Beeton meant to condescend but that in fact this was just indicative of the style of the time. The book was a bestseller even in her lifetime so clearly her peers didn’t think it condescending.
So Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management is old-fashioned, rather out of style, and contains advice you probably shouldn’t try at home anymore, why should you read it then? You should read this book because it an amazing window back in time. To a time which was undergoing a cultural revolution due to the industrial revolution. Towns were swelling and the industrious middle classes were on the rise. Meanwhile due to the empire exotic food and goods were being shipped into the country for the first time. Beeton lived during this time, wrote for other women of this time, and so her book is now one of the best pieces of social history you can read. Many would also argue it is also a feminist piece. Okay Beeton wasn’t telling women to go out to get jobs and fight for the vote. In fact Beeton endorses the woman in the home, however Beeton is one of the first writers to acknowledge how important and often how hard this role was. Writers had written pamphlets and books that were meant to instruct women in the household but Beeton took it further she aimed to instruct and teach. There are wonderful sections within the book looking at exotic foods, how they are produced, where they are grown in the world. Beeton seemed to understand that housewives have inquisitive minds too.
I had to invest a good deal of time in this book, but I feel it was well worth it. Highly recommend this book to those readers that are interested in history, society, and women’s literature.
What Other’s Thought: (Sadly I couldn’t seem to find any other blog reviews, please let me if you have reviewed this book. Would love to add your link here)