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In Victorian England there was only one fail-safe authority on matters ranging from fashion to puddings to scullery maids: Beeton’s Book of Household Management. In this delightful, superbly researched biography, award-winning historian Kathryn Hughes pulls back the lace curtains to reveal the woman behind the book—Mrs. Beeton, the first domestic diva of the modern age—and explores the life of the book itself.
Isabella Beeton was a twenty-one-year-old newlywed with only six months’ experience running her own home when—coaxed by her husband, a struggling publisher—she began to compile her book of recipes and domestic advice. The aspiring mother hardly suspected that her name would become synonymous with housewifery for generations. Nor would the women who turned to the book for guidance ever have guessed that its author lived in a simple house in the suburbs with a single maid-of-all-work instead of presiding over a well-run estate. Isabella would die at twenty-eight, shortly after the book's publication, never knowing the extent of her legacy.
As her survivors faced bankruptcy, sexual scandal and a bitter family feud that lasted more than a century, Mrs. Beeton’s book became an institution. For an exploding population of the newly affluent, it prescribed not only how to cook and clean but ways to cope with the social flux of the emerging consumer culture: how to plan a party for ten, whip up a hair pomade or calculate how much money was needed to permit the hiring of a footman. In the twentieth century, Mrs. Beeton would be accused of plagiarism, blamed for the dire state of British cookery and used to market everything from biscuits to meat pies.
This elegant, revelatory portrait of a lady journalist, as she lived and as she existed in the minds of her readers, is also a vivid picture of Victorian home life and its attendant anxieties, nostalgia, and aspirations—not so different from those felt in America today.
“Scrupulously researched, definitive . . . Mrs. Beeton emerges as a fascinating blend of Betty Crocker and Emily Post, with a little Martha Stewart or Nigella Lawson thrown in for good measure . . . Hughes’s searching social eye does wonders with the small cache of letters between Isabella and Sam, written during their courtship . . . She constructs a detailed picture of fashions and social customs at the high-water mark of the Victorian age. For readers of Dickens and Trollope, this section of the book is pure gold.”
—William Grimes, The New York Times
“A terrific book, filled with astute observation and telling detail about the growth of an idea, or fantasy, of domesticity . . . Later in life, [my mother] would sit around reading a facsimile edition of ‘Beeton’s Book of Household Management’ the way another sort of person might read pornography . . . My mind reels when I think of what she would have thought had she lived to read The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton . . . Mrs. Beeton, a syphilitic plagiarist? Golly. But in case you think I have just given away the whole story, I assure you, I haven’t.”
—Katherine A. Powers, The Boston Globe
—The New Yorker
“A triumph . . . Hughes knows 19th-century England intimately . . . the result is a narrative that could have come straight from Trollope. Vicars and curates, tradesmen’s families edging up the social ladder, tangled marriage plots–for lovers of Barsetshire, it’s all here.”
—Laura Shapiro, The New York Times Book Review
“Peppy . . . Smart . . . Tells vivid personal stories . . . The author’s intelligence never deserts her.”
—Wendy Smith, Washington Post Book World
“Enthralling . . . Having read Ms. Hughes, one wants immediately to read Beeton . . . [Beeton] speaks to the universal condition of female life.”
—Barbara Amiel, Wall Street Journal
“Absorbing . . . Excellent . . . Nostalgia for handmade items, worry over adulterated food, a healthy market for cookbooks . . . We have a lot in common with the early Victorian era, at least with regard to broad trends toward domesticity.”
—Benjamin Lytal, The New York Sun
“One of my favourite biographies of the year . . . a lively and fascinating reconstruction of the ‘real’ Isabella Beeton, unpicking her extraordinary posthumous legend with great skill, opening a wide window on to Victorian domestic and publishing history, and wearing its excellent sleuthing with a light grace.”
—Hermione Lee, The Guardian
“There is seemingly no aspect of Victorian life that Kathryn Hughes cannot assimilate and understand from the inside. This is living history, in which massive research and impeccable scholarship is handled with invigorating panache . . with verve and humor . . . This great gift of a book . . . makes us savour aspects of 19th-century life in order to sharpen our awareness of how we live now.”
—Frances Spalding, The Independent
“Splendid . . . A brilliant biography, which tells the absorbing, strange and sad story with great aplomb . . . You know that Kathryn Hughes would write a wonderful novel.”
—Philip Hensher, The Spectator
“Accomplished and hugely readable . . . Depicts the worlds of the Beetons with astonishing vividness and colour . . . with subtlety and precision . . . Much more than a biography, it is like a version in prose of a magnificent Victorian narrative painting, packed full of the strange, swarming richness of life.”
—Lucy Lethbridge, Literary Review
“A wonderful book, so masterful and scholarly, so detailed and wise, there will never need to be another. Hughes is an elegant writer and a capable digger; no stone, however small or inaccessible, is left unturned . . . She has done sterling work.”
—Rachel Cooke, The Observer
“Intelligent . . . Thoughtful . . . Elegantly written.”
—Lucy Hughes-Hallet, Sunday Times
“Brilliant . . . Excellent . . . A fascinating reconstruction.”
—Nicola Humble, The Saturday Guardian
“It is a testament to Hughes’s wry intelligence that she can make Mrs. Beeton’s sad and sometimes grotesque story so enjoyable to read.”
—Bee Wilson, New Statesman
“Altogether fascinating . . . Leaves very few corners of the mid-Victorian domestic interior unswept. From one angle it is a kind of history of the early woman’s magazine; from another a re-imagined users’ guide to Crimea-era domestic service. The amateur student of venereology will find much in it to relish and the historian of the Victorian pub will not be disappointed. At its heart, though lie the two equally vivid figures of Isabella Mayson and the man she married.”
—D.J. Taylor, The Independent on Sunday
“Illuminating . . . Kathryn Hughes deploys considerable gifts.”
—Matthew Sturgis, The Sunday Telegraph
“Lively and authoritative.”
—Entertainment Weekly, graded A