Today I return to a familiar topic, that of my waywardness as a keeper of the home. I picked up a book recently I had not looked at for a while, Mrs. Beeton’s Every Day Cookery and Housekeeping Book.” The book was published in 1861 and my copy, which cost £42, is inscribed as follows: “Mrs. D. Wilson from her Mother on her 24th birthday Oct 8th 1905.” Mrs. D Wilson, just what would you make of my time – do good women still have their reward?
I’m not so sure we do. I have spent since 7:30 this morning chasing my tail and wishing I had an old fashioned wife. I don’t believe women can have it all and the state of my kitchen, the mountain of laundry that needs done and the list of chores I haven’t accomplished only grows while I write. I am pleased to have written the chapter I completed on my book and to have started this piece but it comes at a cost, and yet…
Isabelle Beeton was born in 1836 and by 1856 she married Samuel Beeton, a publisher of books and magazines. As well as running a large home to her high standards, she wrote articles in various publications. Eventually she compiled current best practice on matters to do with household management and published, “The Book of Household Management Comprising Information for the Mistress, Housekeeper, Cook, Kitchen-Maids, Lady’s –Maid, Maid-of-all-Work, Laundry-Maid, Nurse-Maid, Monthly-Wet and Sick Nurses, etc, etc – also Sanitary, Medical & Legal Memoranda: With a History of the Origin, Properties, and Uses of all Things Connected with Home Life and Comfort, edited by Mrs. Isabelle Beeton.” Not only did she find time to write that title of a celebration of the verbose, she put together the 1,112 pages containing 900 recipes, gave birth to four children, the first who died of croup at three months of age and the second who died of scarlet fever before he was two years old. She had numerous miscarriages and stillbirths and what amazes me is her stoicism and positive enterprise. The day after her fourth child was born she contracted puerperal fever and died a week later at the age of 28.
Despite the emphasis of her ‘feminist’ credentials in the movie, “The Secret Life of Mrs. Beeton” (|BBC, 2006), Isabella Beeton was no feminist. She contended that, “A good woman should be a good housekeeper, for the latter must possess one of the greatest of all virtues, namely, unselfishness. An utter abnegation of self is almost a necessity with the mistress of a household, for with her rests the question of the health and comfort, if not the happiness, of all its members.” Abnegation of self – do we even know the meaning of those words anymore?
Before you get your defensive knickers in a twist, let me cast one stone only, thrown directly at myself. In terms of house cleaning and management, of consistency I am an abject failure. It’s not that I am incapable of the work, or that any part of it is beyond my capabilities, simply that I am not motivated to keep up the day to day of it. There is always something else that seems more diverting or important for me: “In every-day affairs it is so easy to let things drift. So tiresome sometimes to leave an interesting book or study to find out what is going wrong in kitchen or household…yet it must be done.” I have tried, particularly when I was younger, to fit into a more Beeton like mold. I did sustain it with considerable effort but it made me miserable. Now, my efforts are sporadic and often, last minute. I tend to clean up when people come and I am unrepentant and at peace. When a friend came for a visit last week, I opened the door and commented, “thank God you’ve come, I really needed to tidy up!”
It would be very easy to dismiss Mrs. Beeton, to counter that the people who she was primarily writing her book for were replete with domestic assistance. This is true but let’s not discount her wisdom just yet. She addresses the consequences of inattention and poor management with this: “The tired man of business returning home after a harassing day, maybe one in which he has had no time to snatch a meal, sorely needs a pleasant, well cooked, comfortable one to await him. If this be delayed, if hungry, and as a consequence (unless he be superior to masculine failings) cross, small wonder is it if he makes those around him suffer for the fault of the one whose duty it should have been to have provided for his needs.” I agree cautiously, it is reasonable for the one who is at home to prepare some sustenance. I do not think that sex dictates the ability to provide this though, and it should have become less applicable when women joined the workforce. Wouldn’t we all appreciate that? Mrs. Beeton would be horrified to know that in my home we share the task of meals, albeit I tend to do it more often than the others as I’m better at it. Most shocking are my occasional “fend for yourself” nights, where we all make something for ourselves to eat when we are hungry.
Mrs. Beeton goes on to warn that the “hardworking man thus tired goes from his home to his club, or, in a lower social scale, to a public-house, there to get what he should have had in comfort at home…but oh, housewives, beware of it. Its approaches are so insidious that it forms a dangerous foe…” Isabella Beeton devoted her whole short life to this credo. How much good it did her is a point to be debated; it has been speculated that she contracted syphilis from her husband and that this was also passed on to her children. She died young, even for her time and the astonishingly successful book, grossing nearly £2 million in the seven years after it’s release; she was not to benefit from.
Isabella Mary Beeton, tireless advocate of the importance of a woman’s role in the home, editor, publisher, mother, wife and example to millions of women – you are to be admired. You were both a woman of your time and also before your time. You highlighted the importance of animal welfare, the use of local and seasonal produce and offered vegetarian meal options long before others had even dreamt of these issues. You asked no one to do anything you were not prepared and able to do yourself and your work ethic was a shining example. I can’t help but wonder what you would have accomplished today.
I will leave you with this: “There is an innate love for housekeeping in most girls, and it might so easily be cultivated.” So good people, cultivate what you wish to grow and in that, you will have your reward.
(Material from “Mrs. Beeton’s Every Day Cookery and Housekeeping Book.” Additional material from Wikipedia.)
© S. Marian, May 29, 2012