"Beeton's Book of Household Management" was born because of Isabella's own need for a guidebook for setting up and running a Victorian household - but even more because she and her publisher husband had a great idea. They were clever enough to define a publishing void - in the 1850s, no book on household management existed for the guidance of the industrial age's new middle class.
Isabella (who was only 19 and recently married to Sam when she began the book and 23 when she completed it) was resourceful and hardworking enough to fill that void. She stressed ecomony, among other popular virtues; and as the eldest of 21 children she was familiar with what a woman needed a know to run a household. Her cookery section gave exact measurements for ingredients and precise directions for all recipes, leaving little to chance; and her tone was appropriately moral. Sam was imaginative enough to make the end product both attractive and cheap. They had an instantaneous best seller.
"Household Management" first came out in 24 monthly parts starting in 1859. The bound edition was published in 1361 and 60,000 copies were sold that year. By 1865, when Isabella died of childbirth fever at the age of 28, the book had gone through two revisions and had sold 125,000 copies. It has appeared in 10 separate revised editions and more than a score of different abridgements. A first edition facsimile was published in 1968.
Five-sixth of "Household Management" is devoted to cookery and includes 1,500 recipies - most of which were lifted, as has been the case with many cookbooks. Isabella cribbed from among others, Eliza Acton, Brillat Savarin, and the delightful Dr. Kitchner, who was convinced that "The energy of our brains is sadly dependent on the behaviour of our Bowels." p. 146 (He called the laxative pill he invented the "Peristaltic Persuader.") A small proportion of the recipes were contributed by readers of Isabella's cookery column, one of several she wrote or edited on various subjects for Sam's influential and innovative "Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine," whose purpose was to broaden the minds of its readers through easy competitions, problems pages, medical advice, paper dress patterns, serialized fiction (including "The Scarlet Letter," and a daring page of correspondence on love problems called "Cupid's Letter Bag," In the household section, she discussed etiquette, invalid foods, and the rearing and management of children; and she availed her readers of information (without attribution) from encyclopedias and other reference works.
San Beeton's last name remains known today because of "Household Management" and not for the several women's magazines (of which "The Queen" is still extant) or the first boys' and girls' magazines he founded, or as the English publisher of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," or for the dictionaries on geography, natural history, medicine, the British navy and the classics, of the books of peotry, gardening, histories and guides to investment, or the set of books of legal advice for women, the Christmas annuals and the "all about it" books, or even for the correspondence and penny supplements on the barbarous customs of tight-lacing (corsets) and whipping girls.
According to the biographer, the main fault of "Household Management" was "Isabella's unneccessarily peremptory tone; one feels that she could have. . . . shown greater understanding in her attitude to servants, whom she tended to look on as automatons rather than as individuals."
In fact, she was a pro, and she was good, even though she was a bit of a prig. And that is how she comes out in this biography: a prig.Worse, she never comes alive. Nor do Sam, their sisters, mothers, cousins and aunts. In addition, the author bounces back and forth so much in the narrative that you are never sure where you are or when. Biographers would do well to start at the beginning, as life does and tell how lives develop, as lives do. They would also do well to let you know at the beginning of the chapter what year you are in, and then relate the events to their subjects' lives. This book fails to do so.
It also fails to make you care. Rather than bringing you into sympathy with the characters, the author breathes hotly in the form of protestations, assumptions. apologies and statements which are neither elaborated nor substantiated. (Sam's success with women's publications is attributed to "an instinctive sympathy with and understanding of [women] which sprang from a pronounced feminine element in his own personlity." What feminine element? It is never mentioned again.)
I should have felt sorrier about the deaths of the Beetons' children (at 3 months and 3 years), although I was appalled at the circumstances (prolonged croup for one, scarlet fever for the other). I should have cared more about Isabella's death Sam's financial ruin, when a holding company in which he overinvested crashed.
Only one person breathed a bit os life into the few pages she inhabited - Myra Browne, who succeeded Isabella as fashion editor and who mothered the Beetons' two surviving sons.
Perhaps because of these failings Isabella, and even Sam, would not have approved of this biography. Despite its problems, however, the book has an appeal. Its goody-goodyness suits the rectitude and hard-working respectability of the Victorians. And it is also fasinating to see how many of our little social snobberies were initially cultured in the benign dampness of the Industrial Revolution.