Some years ago I managed to pick up a worm eaten copy of "Mrs Beeton's Cookery Book" published by Ward, Lock and Co during WW1. It is an abridged version of the famous "Book of Household Management " originally printed in 1861. It seemed indispensable, representing, as I believed at the time, the best of British Cooking for over 150 years.
It is amusing to note today, while reading Kathryn Hughes intelligent and well researched biography of Isabella Beeton, that the lady was not above ripping off the work of other people, much in the way our Indian cook books and food blogs do, that is- most shamelessly. It turns out that, while being a young woman of excellent good sense and an inveterate organiser, Isabella Beeton was not in the habit of spending much time in the kitchen. She saw the book as a contribution to the family finances, her husband being a publisher, and though it was hard labour that produced it, certainly it was not a labour of love.
She copied large sections of Eliza Acton's book " Modern Cookery for Private Families" (1845) without acknowledgement, as well as recipes from the Duke of York's famous cook, Louis Eustache Ude, writer of 'The French Cook" (1813) with scarcely a nod in his direction. Her Nesselrode Pudding comes straight from the great Antonin Careme and her Soup a La Reine from "Simpson's Cookery" with a word for word copy of his instructions.
Hughes reveals how Beeton lifted large sections from Alexis Soyer's interesting if odd "Pantropheon" a book with very little in the way of recipes but a great deal on the history and social customs surrounding food.Other authors who had large chunks appropriated from their books with scarcely a by your leave were Thomas Webster(" The Encyclopedia of Domestic Economy" 1844) and William Kitchiner ("The Cook's Oracle" 1817). Not much was made of this, perhaps because by then the authors were dead.
"The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton" is fascinating for several other revelations. One that I found particularly interesting was the fact that, while giving the recipe for everything from scratch, Mrs Beeton was herself a great believer in short cuts. If things were available ready made or better still, canned, then it was infinitely preferable to making it yourself. Another eye opener was that women in the England of the early 19th century were not housewives. They expected to work outside the home and were productive forces in the economy of the time. With industrialization and changing times the woman as housewife became the norm, a situation which people aspired to as a declaration of a man's position and wealth, the family's rising good fortunes and their movement from one class to another. The book is peppered with many such observations of life in mid-Victorian England and much that we in India would find familiar in our developing world.
I could not help noticing the similiarity between the aphorisms in "The Book of Household Management" and the 'wisdom' of Martha Stewart. The boring and dependant life of the housewife is elevated to godliness and the woman who runs a good home, clean, thrifty, organised, is worthy of a halo, being, after all, something of an angel. The biography is well worth reading if only for debunking the myth of the all-knowing, perfect, earth mother. Poor Isabella Beeton, who died at the age of 28, was never any of these things. She was a canny woman, who understood the world in which she lived and who used that understanding and her not inconsiderable gifts as an editor to churn out a book that became a publishing phenomenon.