Ladies of the Pen and the Cookpot: Isabella Beeton (Part I)

This initiates a series on the women who wrote cookbooks.

In today’s world, where people still attempt to discover themselves as they approach 30 or 40 or 50, it’s rather sobering to look at the accomplishments of people like John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley and Isabella Beeton.  All of whom died before the candles on their cakes numbered 30. Yet they left mature works of almost immortal greatness.

Today in Britain, “Mrs. Beeton” is a culinary trademark not unlike “Betty Crocker,” whom General Mills created in a Frankensteinian moment to boost sales by appealing to Every Housewife.

The difference between the two ladies is that Mrs. Beeton was a real, breathing, living personage who wrote a monster of a book with a monster of a title: The Book of Household Management Comprising information for the Mistress, Housekeeper, Cook, Kitchen-Maid, Butler, Footman, Coachman, Valet, Upper and Under House-Maids, Lady’s-Maid, Maid-of-all-Work, Laundry-Maid, Nurse and Nurse-Maid, Monthly Wet and Sick Nurses, etc. etc.—also Sanitary, Medical, & Legal Memoranda: with a History of the Origin, Properties, and Uses of all Things Connected with Home Life and Comfort, BOHM for short.

But “ …Mrs. Beeton was a plagiarist.” So states biographer Kathryn Hughes In The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton, published in 2006, nearly 139 years after the death of twenty-eight-year-old author Isabella Mary Mayson Beeton, Mrs. Sam Beeton.

Kathryn Hughes was not the first twentieth-century writer to use the dreaded “P’ word. Elizabeth David, famed mid-twentieth century English food writer, pointed the turning fork at Isabella, too. And whispered all but the word “plagiarism, in her article, “Isabella Beeton and her Book.” David goes on to enumerate what happened to Isabella’s book after her death and the many revisions that occurred.

Isabella also took a leaf so to speak from the pages of several other English cookbooks popular at the time, written by female authors like Hannah Glasse, Maria Rundell, and the well-known Eliza Action. And she grabbed material from William Kitchiner’s The Cook’s Oracle, too. As well as Brillat-Savarin’s The Physiology of Taste and Thomas Webster’s Encyclopaedia of Domestic Economy. A Mrs. Parkes wrote a great deal of that book and included cost information and also listed ingredients at the beginning of the recipes, so Isabella really did not invent something new under the sun.

Born 1836, in Cheapside, London, Isabella was the oldest daughter in a family of 21 children, which she called a “living cargo of children.” At age 19, she married Samuel Orchard (Orchart as some researchers write it) Beeton. Sam Beeton made his fortune by publishing Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Britain. He adorned the book with the beehive symbol/logo of his company. Isabella served as his editor, copy editor, and compiler from 1859–1861 for The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, which Sam started in 1852. She also wrote a monthly cooking supplement for the magazine. In October 1861, Beeton published the twenty-four “supplements” as a single volume.

The only problem was that she did not know much about cooking— her own sisters called her “an indifferent cook.” A damning quote from a letter from Mrs. Henrietta Mary Pourtois English, who married Robert English in 1835, formerly a footman to George IV and well-versed in the ways of the kitchens of noble households and Henrietta also worked in the grand ancestral homes of the English aristocracy. The letter reads in part:

Cookery is a Science that is only learned by Long Experience and years of Study, which, of course, you have not had … .


Mrs. English wrote to Isabella Beeton, July 21st, 1857, when the Beetons were seeking support for what would become Isabella’s magnum opus, published in 1861 with an ornate front piece painted by Henry George Hine.

In her letter, Mrs. English brings up questions about just for whom Isabella was writing the book. The ensuing tone of the book resembled the voice of a comfortable, middle-aged lady appalled at the declining standards of competent womanhood. And Isabella was particularly concerned with extravagance of women driving their families into ruin, never mind their husbands with their gambling, horseracing, and other sundry vices!

Charges of plagiarism against Isabella take on a different perspective with this letter from Mrs. English. For Mrs. English is blatantly telling Isabella to “lift” the recipes from other sources, namely Simpson’s Cookery! This is, according to Hughes,

the way that cookery books had been put together from time immemorial … .

And so Isabella began her book with a poignant preface:

I must frankly own, that if I had known, beforehand, that this book would have cost me the labour which it has, I should never have been courageous enough to commence it. 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.

The book contained a number of interesting and somewhat unique characteristics, or at least features not common in many of the cookery books published at the time. A number of classic phrases and sayings first appeared in Household Management: “Dine we must and we may as well dine elegantly as well as wholesomely”, “A place for everything and everything in its place”, and “In cooking, clear as you go.”

In addition to anecdotal stories and history peppered throughout the recipes, Isabella quoted Byron, Milton, Keats and Tennyson in the chapter on “Dinners and Dining.” She created a usable index, numbered and alphabetized the recipes within the chapters, estimated cost information, measured preparation time, and included the number of servings for each recipe. She also paid attention to seasonality of ingredients.

The detailed engravings/illustrations — some in color — were outstanding, a very different thing for a book of it price (7S 6d). The first review appeared a year after publication in a magazine called Athenaeum. Even so, sixty thousand copies sold during that first year. A moralizing tone characterized many cookery books of the past, a trend which came and went like waves at the seashore, sometimes present during certain time periods and then absent for a while. BOHM took on a somewhat moralizing tone, as was the fashion of the time. Forty-six intensive detailed chapters, beginning with “The Mistress of the Household” and ending with “Legal Memoranda” comprised the book. The title page oozed ripely with Victoriana. Over 1,112 pages made this a massive book, with 900 of those pages devoted nearly 1400 recipes.

As Hughes and David mention in their twentieth-century analyses of BOHM, Isabella plagiarized a number of recipes from Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families.

It was one of the first books to publish recipes in the format that we find familiar. With her maid, Isabella also supposedly tested every recipe, but Hughes is skeptical about that.  She chose recipes to be used in middle-class homes, with few of the fanciful flourishes favored by Charles Francatelli, chef to the Queen Victoria and author of another popular book of the time, The Modern Cook.  Beeton’s book made a tremendous impact on Englishwomen’s cookery, for better or worse, like a marriage.  She provided a list of prepared/canned foods available at the time, and includes the prices. One section focused on the nutritional value of various foods and is quite on the money.  Seven recipes for Plum Pudding appear in BOHM, catering to the pocketbooks of the various economic situations of her readers. Cakes were a luxury food until the end of the nineteenth century. “A Nice Useful Cake,” recipe number 2414, calls for new-fangled baking powder. She also included recipes for Australian, Indian, French, German, and Italian dishes.

(Continued on August 26, 2010.)

© 2008, 2010 C. Bertelsen



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