We each of us strive for domestic bliss, and we may look to Delia and Nigella to give us tips on achieving the unattainable. Kathryn Hughes, acclaimed for her biography of George Eliot, has pulled back the curtains to look at the creator of the ultimate book on keeping house.
In Victorian England what did every middle-class housewife need to create the perfect home? ‘The Book of Household Management’. ‘Oh, but of course!’ Mrs Beeton would no doubt declare with brisk authority. But Mrs Beeton is not quite the matronly figure that has kept her name resonating 150 years after the publication of ‘The Book of Household Management’.
The famous pages of carefully costed recipes, warnings about not gossiping to visitors, and making sure you always keep your hat on in someone else’s house were indispensable in the moulding of the Victorian domestic bliss. But there are many myths surrounding the legend of Mrs Beeton. It is very possible that her book was given so much social standing through fear as she was believed to be a bit of an old dragon.
It seems though that Mrs Beeton was a series of contradictions. Kathryn Hughes reveals here that Bella Beeton was a million miles away from the stoical, middle-aged matron. She was in fact only 25 years old when she created the guide to successful family living and had only had five years experience of her own to inform her. She lived in a semi-detached house in Pinner with the bare minimum of servants. She bordered on being a workaholic, and certainly wasn’t the meek and mild little wife that her book was aimed at – more a highly intelligent and ambitious young woman. After preaching about wholesome and clean living, Bella Beeton died at the age of 28 from (contrary to her parent’s belief) bad hygiene. Kathryn Hughes sympathetically explores the irony behind Bella Beeton’s public and private image in this highly readable and informative study of Victorian lifestyle.