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The story of Mrs. Beeton

150 years ago today, a young Victorian housewife passed away just eight days after giving birth to her fourth child. Given mortality rates in 19th century England, her death might have been just another statistic, but this woman has come to represent all things domestic in the Victorian era.

beetonIsabella Mayson would become a household name not long after her marriage at age 20 to Samuel Orchart Beeton. Beeton was a writer, publisher, and editor, and Isabella joined him in his business, editing and writing content for his magazines The Queen and the English Woman’s Domestic Magazine. The Beetons would also launch Beeton’s Book of Household Management, perhaps the most famous cookbook of the Victorian era.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography notes, “The popular image of Mrs. Beeton as a middle-aged housewife given to the confection of extravagant recipes is doubly mistaken.” Mrs. Beeton, who began the book in her mid-twenties, borrowed many of her recipes from earlier Victorian cookbook authors, but her major contribution was her attention to detail and the clear structure of her recipes.  For example, she arranged recipes alphabetically by sections, and provided lists of ingredients before the preparation instructions.

The Book of Household Management was issued in parts between 1859 and 1861, meaning that the cost of the book for buyers was spread out over time.  Later, an illustrated edition and various cheap re-issues were offered by Beeton and his successors, ensuring the book’s continued popularity.

Today, Mrs. Beeton continues to capture the public imagination: her cookbook is still in print, and she has been the subject of several modern biographies and a 2007 BBC biopic. You can find copies by searching the library catalog using the subject term “Beeton, Mrs.” First and later editions of Beeton’s Book of Household Management can be found in Special Collections holdings.

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