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

(Continued from August 23, 2010):

Brillat-Savarin’s comments about the English being the worst cooks in the world drew a sniff from the proper Isabella, sure that her book would right that situation.

In spite of the moralizing tone, and the plagiarism, BOHM became a runaway bestseller. Readers and critics considered the soup, fish, sauce chapters the best.

Quantities of food served at dinner now seem phenomenal. But Isabella emphasized strict economy,  sometimes distressingly so, especially with family meals. She tackled the problem of leftover joints of meat, indexed in BOHM under “Cold Meat Cookery.” For surely, as you well know, leftovers  signal prosperity and abundance, a luxury not possible for the poor, whose next meal may just be a dream and a wish.

And Sam Beeton, crafty publisher that he was, decided to take advantage of that situation. In 1863, he and Isabella created and published The Englishwoman’s Cookery Book — a compendium of cold meat recipes and economical dishes. Leftover meat presented huge problems for households and readers clamored for ideas of how to use up the huge joints of meats.

Cooks still mine BOHM for recipes, for the book reveals social and cultural history. According to Aylett and Ordish in First Catch Your Hare,

It is still in print today, though modernised. First editions are extremely valuable properties; all nineteenth-century editions are collectors’ pieces.

The book provides an invaluable guide to the domestic life of Victorian England, especially eating habits. People gorged themselves, at least in the upper classes and whenever there was enough money for food. Obesity was a problem then, too. BOHM reflects the urban life of most of the readers, in that no one appears to have grown their own food. Isabella focused on doing the marketing/purchasing of goods for the household, including the food. At the

Boiled carrots, anyone?

time, houses had official “back doors,” to which the tradesmen came and sold their wares, thus relieving the housewife of having to go out to do the marketing. Female servants did go out if necessary. Isabella included copious information on servants, their ranks in the household, and the pay they received. All food was cooked and nothing eaten raw,  understandably so because of the dangers of contamination by poor water and dirty hands. Isabella’s book came out  before Pasteur confirmed his germ theory discoveries around 1862. And the legendary Sweeney Todd, the evil barber of Fleet Street, killed his customers to make meat pies out of them.

A boy named Victor won this book … in 1880

Keywords characterizing the times of Isabella Beeton include Industrial Revolution, growing female literacy, appearance of new consumer goods, breakdown of social class, and democratic movements. Charles Darwin published his The Origin of Species two years before. So Sam’s magazines filled an important niche and fed his readers’ hunger for knowledge propelled by the burgeoning intellectual life and growing literacy of the times. The contents of the book included items arranged according to the manner in which they were served or eaten at large dinner parties:



The Sheep and Lamb

The Common Hog

The Calf







Milk and Eggs

Breads and Cakes

Beverages and

Invalid Cookery

Sample recipes:


383. INGREDIENTS – 1/2 pint of melted butter No. 376, 3 dessertspoonfuls of capers, 1 dessertspoonful of their liquor, a small piece of glaze, if at hand (this may be dispensed with), 1/4 teaspoonful of salt, ditto of pepper, 1 tablespoonful of anchovy essence.

Mode.—Cut the capers across once or twice, but do not chop them fine; put them in a saucepan with 1/2 pint of good melted butter, and add all the other ingredients. Keep stirring the whole until it just simmers, when it is ready to serve.

Time.—1 minute to simmer. Average cost for this quantity, 5d.

Sufficient to serve with a skate, or 2 or 3 slices of salmon.

CAPERS.—These are the unopened buds of a low trailing shrub, which grows wild among the crevices of the rocks of Greece, as well as in northern Africa: the plant, however, has come to be cultivated in the south of Europe. After being pickled in vinegar and salt, they are imported from Sicily, Italy, and the south of France. The best are from Toulon.


384. INGREDIENTS – 1/2 pint of melted butter, No. 376, 2 tablespoonfuls of cut parsley, 1/2 teaspoonful of salt, 1 tablespoonful of vinegar.

Mode.—Boil the parsley slowly to let it become a bad colour; cut, but do not chop it fine. Add it to 1/2 pint of smoothly-made melted butter, with salt and vinegar in the above proportions. Boil up and serve.

Time.—2 minutes to simmer. Average cost for this quantity, 3d.

So too 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.” — all originated in Isabella’s book.

Other features of the book included an index, recipes numbered and alphabetized within the chapters, cost information, preparation times, and number of servings. Granted, Eliza Acton had pioneered some of these features found in Isabella’s book, but that Isabella adapted them and that her book went on to be reprinted and revised so many times—unlike Acton’s work—virtually guaranteed that these items would be carried over by other cookbook authors, including Fanny Farmer of the Boston Cooking School in the United States.

Excited about the delivery of her fourth child, Isabella worked on Beeton’s Dictionary of Cookeran abridged version of Beeton’s Book of Household Management, up to a week before she died. She also started a magazine called The Queen (now called Harper’s & Queen).

Gravestone of Isabella Beeton

She died of puerperal fever at age 28 one day after the birth of her fourth son, Mayson, in January 1865. Sam’s broken-hearted eulogy read:

USQUE AD FINEM (Forever At Rest) Her hand has lost its cunning, the firm, true hand that wrote these formulae and penned the information contained in this little book…exquisite palate, unerring judgment, sound common sense, refined tastes, all these had the dear Lady, who has gone, ere her youth had scarcely come…her duty no woman has ever better accomplished than the late Isabella Mary Beeton.





Aylett, Mary and Ordish, Olive. “Mrs. Isabella Beeton, 1836-1865.” In: Aylett, Mary and Ordish, Olive, First Catch Your Hare: A History of the Recipe Makers. London: Macdonald, 1965, pp. 220-239.

Beeton, Mrs. Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management. Oxford World’s Classics. Abridged Edition. Edited by Nicola Humble. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

David, Elizabeth. “Isabella Beeton and her Book,” in An Omelette and a Glass of Wine. London: Viking, 1986, pp. 303-309. Reprinted from Wine and Food, Spring 1961.

Mrs. Beeton’s Popularity Continues

Day, Helen. “Isabella Beeton.” In: Arndt, Alice, editor, Culinary Biographies. Houston, Texas: Yes Press, 2006, p. 57-59.

Freeman, Sarah. Isabella and Sam: The Story of Mrs. Beeton. London: Victor Gollancz, Ltd., 1977.

Hughes, Kathryn. The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton. New York: Knopf, 2006.

(Excellent bibliography and analysis of the life and work of Isabella Beeton.)

Spain, Nancy. Mrs. Beeton and her Husband. London: Collins, 1948.

Online Resources:

© 2008, 2010 C. Bertelsen



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