Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management.
When it comes under-read classics, Isabella Beeton's Book of Household Management must figure pretty highly on the list. First published in 1861, it sold over 60,000 copies in that year alone. By 1868 it had sold 2,000,000 copies and Isabella Beeton, who by this time had sadly died at the young age of 28, was a household name. In the 19th Century not all households were ran the way Mrs. Beeton recommended, but I'd bet a high figure of households give it a go. That is one reason to read Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management: it's a historical document proving a very valuable insight into the domestic sphere. Mid and late Victorian attitudes, methods, and practices are covered, so in my mind any novel concerning in any small way the home can be understood that little bit more with Mrs. Beeton in mind.
Of course for the 21st Century it is a little dated (unless you do have a need for advice on your valet) but there is an abundance of recipes (less than half, perhaps just over one third of the book is made up of recipes, some Mrs. Beeton's own but the majority being supplied by her readers and other cooks). Some I'm even keen to try. But what else is there? Here's a brief synopsis:
- Advice for the Mistress
- Advice for and regarding the servants, including:
- The Housekeeper
- The Butler
- The Footman
- The Valet
- The Coachman, Groom, and Stable-Boy
- The Lady's Maid
- The Housemaid
- The Maid-of-all-Work
- The Dairy Maid
- The Laundry Maid
- The Upper and Under Nurse Maids
- The Sick Nurse
- The Monthly Nurse
- The Wet Nurse
- Cooking, including general observations on, and recipes for:
- Pickles, Gravies, and Forcemeats
- Meat, including -
- Sheep and Lamb
- Common Hog
- Puddings and Pastry
- Creams, Jellies, Soufflés, Omelettes, and Sweet Dishes
- Preserves, Confectionery, Ices, and Desert Dishes
- Milk, Butter, Cheese, and Eggs
- Bread, Biscuits, and Cakes
- Cooking for Invalids
- General advice on dinner and dining
- Children, including:
- Rearing and Management
- Childhood diseases
- The Doctor
- Legal Memoranda
Clearly there's an absolute wealth of information. As for reading Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management: to be clear, I didn't read every single word. I did however work through it and read the sections on the mistress, the servants, and the doctor, as well as her "general observations": I skimmed through the section on illnesses, and I skimmed through the recipes and avoided the parts on how to kill certain animals (as a vegetarian I found them a little hard going). On the subject of animals, though, I did find a few parts very interesting, particularly Mrs. Beeton's attitude to animal welfare. The Victorians ate meat, vegetarianism was comparatively rare, and it's very clear Mrs. Beeton wasn't adverse to a Sunday roast. But her thoughts on the care of animals as one who ate meats does her great credit. For example, I was surprised to learn that the practice of 'battery farms' for hens was beginning to come into practice. Beeton writes on the matter,
Tender, delicate, and nutritious flesh is the great aim; and these qualities, I can affirm without fear of contradiction, were never attained by a dungeon-fatted chicken: perpetual gloom and darkness is an incompatible with chicken life as it is with human. If you wish to be convinced of the absurdity of endeavouring to thwart nature's laws, plant a tuft of grass, or a cabbage-plant, in the darkest corner of your coal-cellar. The plant or tuft may increase in length and breadth, but its colour will be as wan and pale, almost, as would be your own face under the circumstances.
Here's another section on the calf in which she describes the maternal nature of the cow, then writes,
There was no species of slaughtering practised in this country so inhuman and disgraceful as that, till very lately, employing in killing the poor animal; when, under the plea of making the flesh white, the calf was bled day by day, till, when the final hour came, the animal was unable to stand. This inhumanity is, we believe, now abolished... [she concludes with a description on how the calf would be killed].
Her thoughts on the animal welfare are twofold: firstly, better meat comes from humanely raised animals, and secondly it is immoral not to raise the animals humanely.
All in all, I really enjoyed this. History, nostalgia, cooking, and even some practical advice that still stands today. It's written in a very authoritative way making Mrs. Beeton seem very stern and so much older than she was, but somehow that was enjoyable too. It's very thorough and one does get the sense that Mrs. Beeton really enjoyed writing it and researching it. Some of her observations do go into particular depth and one may wonder how necessary they are, but I liked the detail, it made it all the more interesting. It was good to have read it and good even to own it - despite it's age there are a couple of things in it that may perhaps come in handy one day.