I’ve been reading a biography of Mrs Beeton, arguably the nation’s first domestic goddess. The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton by Kathryn Hughes was published by Harper Perennial in 2006.
As recent events have served to illustrate, the life lived behind the edifice of a lifestyle brand is rarely as it appears, and this book has been an eye-opener. Some interesting things I’ve discovered about Mrs B:
1. Isabella Beeton’s image was the first ever photographic portrait accepted by the National Portrait Gallery. Maull & Pollyblank’s 1857 plate, which the NPG accepted from her son Mayson in 1932, reveals a slim, striking 19-year-old Bella, not the stout, flour-dusted matriarch with a rolling pin that you might have imagined. Mrs Bridges from Upstairs, Downstairs she definitely was not.
2. Her first baby died a few months after birth, very likely of syphilis: a disease which she appears to have contracted from her husband in the early days of their marriage.
3. Bella’s husband, Sam, originally a printer by trade, made a killing publishing an unauthorised British edition of Harriet Beecher-Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, exploiting a time when there was no copyright agreement between America and Britain. He and Bella together proved cunning publishing entrepreneurs, successfully exploring the new markets, trends and opportunities created by an expanding middle-class in Victorian England.
4. Bella Beeton was far from an experienced cook when she took on writing the Book of Household Management.
5. Which is why she plagiarised widely yet skilfully for the book; all this is documented in fascinating detail by Hughes.
6. Elizabeth David was particularly galled by Bella’s light-fingered borrowings from Eliza Acton.
7. Bella liked her red wine.
8. She had a great eye for fashion and pioneered the popularising of dress patterns in the ‘Practical Dress Instructor’, a regular feature in the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, capitalising on the boost to sewing created by the recent invention of the sewing machine.
9. She died very early, age 28. But that didn’t stop the ‘Mrs Beeton’ brand marching on. And on. And on.
10. Without her able management, and with the encroaching symptoms of tertiary syphilis, Sam went to rack and ruin after Bella’s untimely death.
She certainly packed a lot into her short life. I’d recommend this biography: snappy, witty, sensitively written, and especially riveting if you’re interested in publishing and journalism (particularly the history of lifestyle publishing, cookery writing and fashion journalism), and if you want an insight into the burgeoning Victorian middle classes and what made them tick.