Isabella Mary Beeton (née Mayson; 14 March 1836 – 6 February 1865), also known as Mrs Beeton, was an English journalist, editor and writer. Her name is particularly associated with her first book, the 1861 work Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management. She was born in London and, 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, Isabella 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. Isabella 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 in February 1865 at the age of 28. She gave birth to four children, two of whom died in infancy, and had several miscarriages. Two of her biographers, Nancy Spain and Kathryn Hughes, posit the theory that Samuel had unknowingly contracted syphilis in a premarital liaison with a prostitute, and had unwittingly passed the disease on to his wife.
The Book of Household Management has been edited, revised and enlarged several times since Isabella's death and is still in print as at 2016. Food writers have stated that the subsequent editions of the work were far removed from and inferior to the original version. Several cookery writers, including Elizabeth David and Clarissa Dickson Wright, have criticised Isabella's work, particularly her use of other people's recipes. Others, such as the food writer Bee Wilson, consider the censure overstated, and that Beeton and her work should be thought extraordinary and admirable. 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 had become 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.Isabella Mayson was born on 14 March 1836 in Marylebone, London. She was the eldest of three daughters to Benjamin Mayson, a linen factor (merchant)[a] and his wife Elizabeth (née Jerrom). Shortly after Isabella's birth the family moved to Milk Street, Cheapside, from where Benjamin traded. He died when Isabella was four years old,[c] and Elizabeth, pregnant and unable to cope with raising the children on her own while maintaining Benjamin's business, sent her two elder daughters to live with relatives. Isabella went to live with her recently widowed paternal grandfather in Great Orton, Cumberland, though she was back with her mother within the next two years.
The new race stand at Epsom Racecourse in 1829
Three years after Benjamin's death Elizabeth married Henry Dorling, a widower with four children. Henry was the Clerk of Epsom Racecourse, and had been granted residence within the racecourse grounds. The family, including Elizabeth's mother, moved to Surrey and over the next twenty years Henry and Elizabeth had a further thirteen children. Isabella was instrumental in her siblings' upbringing, and collectively referred to them as a "living cargo of children".[d] The experience gave her much insight and experience in how to manage a family and its household.
After a brief education at a boarding school in Islington, in 1851 Isabella was sent to school in Heidelberg, Germany, accompanied by her stepsister Jane Dorling. Isabella became proficient in the piano and excelled in French and German; she also gained knowledge and experience in making pastry.[e] She had returned to Epsom by the summer of 1854 and took further lessons in pastry-making from a local baker.Around 1854 Isabella began a relationship with Samuel Orchart Beeton. His family had lived in Milk Street at the same time as the Maysons—Samuel's father still ran the Dolphin Tavern there—and Samuel's sisters had also attended the same Heidelberg school as Isabella. Samuel was the first British publisher of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1852 and had also released two innovative and pioneering journals: The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine in 1852 and the Boys' Own magazine in 1855. The couple entered into extensive correspondence in 1855—in which Isabella signed her letters as "Fatty"—and they announced their engagement in June 1855. The marriage took place at St Martin's Church, Epsom, in July the following year, and was announced in The Times. Samuel was "a discreet but firm believer in the equality of women" and their relationship, both personal and professional, was an equal partnership. The couple went to Paris for a three-week honeymoon, after which Samuel's mother joined them in a visit to Heidelberg. They returned to Britain in August, when the newlyweds moved into 2 Chandos Villas, a large Italianate house in Pinner.Within a month of returning from their honeymoon Isabella was pregnant. A few weeks before the birth, Samuel persuaded his wife to contribute to The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine, a publication that the food writers Mary Aylett and Olive Ordish consider was "designed to make women content with their lot inside the home, not to interest them in the world outside". The magazine was affordable, aimed at young middle class women and was commercially successful, selling 50,000 issues a month by 1856. Isabella began by translating French fiction for publication as stories or serials. Shortly afterwards she started to work on the cookery column—which had been moribund for the previous six months following the departure of the previous correspondent—and the household article. The Beetons' son, Samuel Orchart, was born towards the end of May 1857, but died at the end of August that year. On the death certificate, the cause of death was given as diarrhoea and cholera, although Hughes hypothesises that Samuel senior had unknowingly contracted syphilis in a premarital liaison with a prostitute, and had unwittingly passed the condition on to his wife, which would have infected his son.
While coping with the loss of her child, Isabella continued to work at The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine. Although she was not a regular cook, she and Samuel obtained recipes from other sources. A request to receive the readers' own recipes led to over 2,000 being sent in, which were selected and edited by the Beetons. Published works were also copied, largely unattributed to any of the sources. These included Eliza Acton's Modern Cookery for Private Families, Elizabeth Raffald's The Experienced English Housekeeper, Marie-Antoine Carême's Le Pâtissier royal parisien, Louis Eustache Ude's The French Cook, Alexis Soyer's The Modern Housewife or, Ménagère and The Pantropheon, Hannah Glasse's The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, Maria Eliza Rundell's A New System of Domestic Cookery, and the works of Charles Elmé Francatelli. Suzanne Daly and Ross G. Forman, in their examination of Victorian cooking culture, consider that the plagiarism makes it "an important index of mid-Victorian and middle-class society" because the production of the text from its own readers ensures that it is a reflection of what was actually being cooked and eaten at the time. In copying the recipes of others, Isabella was following the recommendation given to her by Henrietta English, a family friend, who wrote that "Cookery is a Science that is only learnt by Long Experience and years of study which of course you have not had. Therefore my advice would be compile a book from receipts from a Variety of the Best Books published on Cookery and Heaven knows there is a great variety for you to choose from."