Domestic goddess

The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton

Kathryn Hughes <em>Fourth Estate, 525pp, £20</em>


Pick up the average glossy magazine, and you will be assaulted with directly opposing directives. Some of them command you to give free rein to consumerist desire. Buy that pair of calf-length designer boots! Life's too short to worry about debt or obligation! You can never have too many umbrellas! Make the ultimate chocolate cake! But many of these same glossy pages tug you in the opposite direction, urging you to restrain your desires and be a better person (though better here is often confused with thinner). Don't buy those expensive boots - invest in an Isa for your family's future! Cut down on your umbrella consumption - think of the children in the umbrella sweatshops. Eat chocolate cake? Are you mad? Don't you know about the GI level . . . not to mention the food miles?

This much-anticipated biography of Mrs Beeton by Kathryn Hughes, biographer of George Eliot, shows us that the schizophrenia at the heart of women's magazines is nothing new: "The genius of a magazine format - today, as much as then - is the way it is able to represent a whole range of conflicting anxieties, wishes, desires and solutions while always managing to stop just short of fatal incoherence." It all began, thinks Hughes, in the 1850s, with the Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine, the periodical edited and published by Sam Beeton, Mrs Beeton's enterprising husband. S O Beeton's "genius" was to meld two kinds of magazines that had previously remained separate: on the one hand, the high-minded "ladies' magazines", which were full of improving culture and ideas, and, on the other hand, the humble "family magazines" filled with practical tips and recipes. Sam Beeton achieved the delicate trick of speaking to his readers in different registers. He could congratulate his reader on her ability to run a frugal home yet also tease her for chasing after men, or encourage her to wear the latest Paris fashions. In 1867, after his wife's death left him in a rather wild and syphilitic state, Sam even added a little mild pornography to the mix, printing a series of possibly fabricated letters on the bliss of being spanked.

Hughes presents Isabella Beeton herself as "protean" and contradictory, like her mammoth Book of Household Management (1861), which encourages women to see themselves alternately as the commander of an army and as a domestic angel, the "alpha and omega" of a house. Hughes confirms what food historians have long known - that much of the Beeton book is a scissors-and-paste job from countless other sources; but she also shows what a formidable and original paster Beeton was, collating information in a way that made it seem newly accessible to her middle-class audience while throwing in some aspirational titbits, such as turtle soup made from real turtles, for good measure.

Yet there is something inherently dismal about any life of Mrs Beeton. She died so horribly young - at 28, of puerperal fever associated with the birth of her second healthy son (two previous boys, both named Samuel after their father, had died, one at three months and the other, wrenchingly, aged three and a half). In addition, her magnum opus - which, for all its faults, has an elegance and authority to it - was turned into a twee and nasty concoction in subsequent editions, as her publishers rewrote her mostly sensible text in ways that made it snobbish and fanciful, add-ing instructions, for example, on how to "fashion a Venetian chalet out of nougat and a swan out of Italian biscuit". This is the "long times" of the subtitle. As Hughes shows, even now Mrs Beeton's name is being exploited: Ginsters, the manu- facturer of pasties and sandwiches, has bought the right to use the Mrs Beeton brand on its products.

It is a testament to Hughes's wry intelligence that she can make Mrs Beeton's sad and sometimes grotesque story so enjoyable to read. The relationship between Sam and Isabella is particularly well done: Hughes has used fuller documentary sources than any other biographer. She employs a clever device of interspersing chapters on the life with "interludes" about themes raised by Mrs Beeton's book. "Did Mrs Beeton ruin British cooking?" runs the title of one (the not entirely convincing answer given is "No", in that, as a plagiarist, Beeton cannot be held res-ponsible for her own recipes).

If I have a criticism, it is that Hughes sometimes seems reluctant to take her subject at face value, and is always on the lookout for hidden meanings. She writes that Mrs Beeton's "imaginary household is in constant danger of being poisoned", presenting her concern with food adulteration as a kind of hysteria. Actually, it was a pretty rational attitude to have in 1861, when more than half of London's milk was impure, and when children's sweets were regularly coloured with arsenic derivatives. In another section, Hughes quotes Mrs Beeton on pigs - coarse and prolific, but useful animals - and proceeds to imply that this was also Mrs Beeton's attitude to the servant classes. This is a far-fetched leap. Know-ing how to deal with pigs and managing servants were both important parts of Victorian household management, but nothing in Mrs Beeton suggests it is a good idea to muddle them up.

Bee Wilson's The Hive: the story of the honeybee and us is published by John Murray

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Barack Obama