Food History: The Inimitable Mrs Beeton
Isabella Mary Beeton (née Mayson) was born on March 14th, 1836. Better known simply as Mrs Beeton, she was an English journalist, editor and writer who is most associated with her first book, the 1861 work Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management. After schooling in Islington, north London, and Heidelberg, Germany, she married Samuel Orchart Beeton, an ambitious publisher and magazine editor.
In 1857, less than a year after the wedding, Beeton began writing for one of her husband's publications, The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine. She translated French fiction and wrote the cookery column, though all the recipes were plagiarised from other works or sent in by the magazine's readers. In 1859 the Beetons launched a series of 48-page monthly supplements to The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine; the 24 instalments were published in one volume as Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management in October 1861, which sold 60,000 copies in the first year. Beeton was working on an abridged version of her book, which was to be titled The Dictionary of Every-Day Cookery, when she died of puerperal fever on February 6th, 1865 at the age of 28.
The Book of Household Management has been edited, revised and enlarged several times since Beeton's death. While still available in print, the subsequent editions were far removed from, and inferior to, the original version.
Her name has become associated with knowledge and authority on Victorian cooking and home management, and the Oxford English Dictionary states that by 1891 the term Mrs Beeton was being used as a generic name for a domestic authority. She is also considered a strong influence in the building or shaping of a middle-class identity of the Victorian era. One presumes that Mrs Beeton’s popularity and celebrity was undoubtedly aided by being married to a publisher, yet the popular belief that she was responsible for the modern cookery book is wrong. In fact the format we are familiar with today - listed ingredients, quantities, timings and method - was first popularized by Eliza Acton, who Beeton freely plagiarised. Indeed several cookery writers have criticised Beeton's work for her use of other people's recipes but this is somewhat disingenuous as it ignores the trend at the time to wholesale plagiarise or copy large portions of another’s work.