Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management
by Isabella Beeton
This tome, originally published in 1861, contains nearly 2000 pages - a true door-stopper! I read it as a free ebook on my kindle, though, so it did not unduly weigh down my handbag. It accompanied me on my train trips for many weeks, and I did not read each and every word of it.
The overall reading was interesting, fascinating, sometimes even funny - rarely deliberately so, I must admit.
The book is neatly sorted into different parts dealing with subjects such as what each household member's tasks should be (the male head of household being conspicuously absent from the list of tasks), how each of these tasks should be done, general remarks about management of house, kitchen, gardens, stables, hen houses etc., plus a large part with recipes for all meals and all purposes.
There is also a chapter dealing with illnesses and injuries, and another one about bringing up children.
Throughout the book it is emphasized that most of the advice is suitable for households of a moderate size. When larger establishments are addressed, it is always specifically stated.
In the recipe part, the various fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, eggs (and the respective animals they come from) are meticulously described, including their countries of origin, seasonal availability and how to choose the best of each on the market or from the grocer's.
That part - the recipes - was the one I flicked through rather quickly, only stopping when a particular dish or description caught my attention (such as the one for Yorkshire pudding)..
Most interesting was to note how everything was made from scratch in most households. For instance, if a recipe for a pudding required gelatine, that recipe pointed towards another one on how to make gelatine from bones, and so on.
The chapters about servants' work were eye-opening - or they would have been, had I not been reading other books before about what life used to be like for maids and footmen.
Frequently, the author refers to the fact that servants are human beings, too, and a lot on how they perform their work depends on how they are lead - on the mistress of the house.
That, I am sure, was a novel idea to many readers at the time, who probably saw servants as an inferior class of sub-humans, not much better (if that) than animals.
Victorians were obsessed with cleanliness, soemthing I find most interesting considering that the times immediately preceding the Victorian era were not exactly famous for high standards personal hygiene and progress in medicine.
The number of tasks (and frequency with which they are advised to be performed) involving cleaning, scrubbing, washing, scouring etc. is astonishing - and of course most of it was supposed to be done by servants.
To give you an idea of what the book is like, here is a quote:
"I have always thought that there is no more fruitful source of family discontent than a housewife's badly-cooked dinners and untidy ways."
The book has its own wikipedia-article here.
According to the article, Isabella Beeton was only 21 when she started working on the book.
She lived from 1836 to 1865 and, before her death at not yet 29 years old, she gave birth to four children.
Also from the wikipedia article is the following information:
It was probably found in more homes than any other cookery book, and was probably the most often consulted, in the years between 1875 and 1914.
In 2012 the food economist for the British television period drama Downton Abbey described Beeton's book as an "important guide" for the food served in the series.
When I read that last sentence, I nodded inwardly, because while I was reading the book, I often thought how much this book would be useful to anyone who is writing a novel set in Victorian England, or researching the matter for other purposes. It is definitely one I am not going to delete from my kindle, now that I have read it, but will keep for further reference.