Susan Zlotnick, “On the Publication of Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Management, 1861″


This essay examines Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Management, which has been called “the most famous English cookery book ever published.” It contends that Beeton’s work shares the same concerns as the nineteenth-century realist novel, and that The Book of Household Management captures the contradictions, anxieties, aspirations and fantasies of middle-class domesticity and thereby offers a vision of family life that is novelistic in its complexity. Specifically, the essay focuses on Beeton’s representation of the middle-class housewife as a domestic manager responsible for maintaining the family’s class identity by creating a “tasteful” lifestyle. In doing so, it concludes that the line from the Victorian Mrs. Beeton to the Martha Stewarts of our own day is a fairly direct one.

Title page of Beeton's book

Figure 1: Title Page of Beeton's _Book of Household Management_

Like many other famous nineteenth-century texts, The Book of Household Management was originally published in monthly parts.  It began appearing in 1859 as a 3d. supplement to the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, and the one-volume edition followed in 1861. An immediate success for the husband-and-wife duo behind the venture, Isabella and Sam Beeton, it sold 60,000 copies in the year after its volume publication and close to two million by the end of the decade.  It remains, as Nicola Humble notes in her introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics edition, “the most famous English cookery book ever published” (vii). To commemorate the publication of a cookbook, even a famous one, is to pen a distinctly different kind of history, one akin to that found in the literary form most closely associated with nineteenth-century England: the realist novel.  Both The Book of Household Management and the great realist novels of the period focus on the ordinary and present an image of life rooted in the home, the family and the affections. For example, in staking a claim for his own brand of literary realism, William Thackeray informs readers of Vanity Fair (1847-8) that he is writing a “homely story” about a “stockbroker’s family in map iconRussell Square, who are taking walks, or luncheon, or dinner, or talking, and making love as people do in common life” (60-61).  Beeton’s book also tells a “homely story,” in which luncheon and dinner feature prominently, about the “common life” of the English middle classes.  Indeed, it captures the contradictions, anxieties, aspirations and fantasies of middle-class domesticity and offers a representation of family life that is novelistic in its complexity.[1]

Before considering The Book of Household Management’s depiction of Victorian domesticity, however, it is important to acknowledge its contributions to the genre of the cookbook.  Much of the pleasure for the modern reader of The Book of Household Management comes from contemplating arcane dishes with fantastical-sounding names like “Half-Pay Pudding” and “Hashed Partridges.”  But the recipes themselves were not of Beeton’s devising, and her work did not revolutionize the way Britons cooked and ate.  In fact, Beeton filched many of her recipes from previously published materials, although she borrowed in an eclectic fashion: she drew from French chefs working in great aristocratic households but also from female cookery experts like Eliza Acton and Maria Rundell, who had written with more modest households in mind.  She was also indebted, as she acknowledges in the preface, to “many correspondents of the ‘Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine’, who have obligingly placed at my disposal their formula for many original preparations” (4) as well as to her wide circle of friends.[2]  What is novel about The Book of Household Management is the way it arranged these materials. Margaret Beetham points to such innovations as its listing of ingredients at the beginning of each recipe, along with weights and costs, arranging recipes alphabetically, and varying print sizes to make the recipes easier to read (“Recipe” 21). If by “1875 the form of the modern cookery book was set” (Driver 18), it followed the lines established by Isabella Beeton. Moreover, the success of her work convinced publishers that there was a high demand among consumers for cookbooks, which quickly became—and remain to this day—a staple of the commercial publishing industry.

However, The Book of Household Management is more than a compendium of recipes.  It is a domestic manual offering advice on servants, children, dinner parties, clothing and furnishings, and again its originality resides in the way it organizes its materials and presents household management as, in the words of Kathryn Hughes, “a system, which, if properly applied, would produce a guaranteed result—in this case domestic well-being” (247), or in Beetham’s view, as a “science . . . that could be systematically taught” (“Recipe” 22). Aimed at members of a rapidly expanding middle class, Beeton’s book was bought by (or for) women whose husbands decamped to the office every morning, leaving them at home to manage the children, the servants and the shopping.  For these women, Beeton’s book, with its systematic approach to domesticity, functioned as a how-to guide for middle-class living.   Its appearance marked the ascendancy of a new kind of publication—the “lifestyle” publication—that suddenly became relevant in a world where the smallest domestic details, from the food one served to the chair one sat on, had enormous ramifications.  Charged with, as Elizabeth Langland contends, “the ideological work of managing the class question and displaying the signs of middle-class status” (9), the Victorian housewife turned to Beeton for a clear and commanding set of instructions on achieving a “tasteful” lifestyle. The threat of vulgarity hung like a Damoclean sword over the Victorian bourgeoisie because class identity and taste were irrevocably intertwined for them. By offering advice on everything from the best color scheme for one’s next frock to how to entertain, Beeton’s book helped the apprehensive wife make visible her “aesthetic refinement,” which was understood to be the “essential mark of proper middle-class subjectivity” (Garson 5).[3]  Of course, that refinement remains central to middle-class identity today, and the line from the Victorian Mrs. Beeton to the Martha Stewarts of our own day is a fairly direct one.

Keeping up appearances is no easy task, and Beeton’s book exposes the household as a site of enormous labor, both the physical labor of the servants as well as the managerial labor of the middle-class woman. In many ways, The Book of Household Management works as a perfect rejoinder to John Ruskin’s famously treacly description of the home in Sesame and Lilies (1865) as “the place of Peace” that the “anxieties of the outer life” must never penetrate (77).   The Book of Household Management gives the housewife plenty to be anxious about, from ensuring that the housemaid lives up to Beeton’s exacting standards for polishing fire grates (“a day should never pass without the housemaid rubbing with a dry leather the polished parts of a grate, as also the fender and fire-irons” [432]) to throwing a dinner party the Beeton way.  To be sure, the “real beating heart” of The Book of Household Management is “the plain supper for 6,” as Hughes notes, with the elaborate ball suppers for 60 functioning as the “sweetening fantasy” for the reader (229).  But even Beeton’s modest dinner party for ten demanded that eighteen different dishes issue forth from the kitchen, and thus it is difficult to imagine that the hostess, her cook or servants considered the home a “place of Peace” on such a day.

One subject in particular that produced anxiety for the middle-class Victorian housewife was the management of servants.  Privileged Victorians may have figured servants as the “greatest plague of life”—a popular reference to an 1847 novel of the same name by Henry and Augustus Mayhew—but living without servants was unthinkable: having servants in the household was the de facto dividing line between the middle and lower classes. “To keep a maid of some order, no matter how wretched, is the line of distinction between a lady and a woman,” concludes the anonymous author of “Our Domestic Woes,” an 1870 article in The Lady’s Own PaperThe Book of Household Management assumes a household with servants, and it provides instructions for supervising a variety of servants, from a butler to a maid-of-all-work, as well as a helpful guide for housewives trying to figure out how many servants they could afford, from the lower-middle-class household with its one maid-of-all-work to the lucky family with £1000 per annum and five servants (cook, upper and lower housemaids, nursemaid and man servant) to show for it.  Indeed, the detailed directions for servants suggests that many of the women who depended upon Beeton did not grow up in houses with multiple maids and cooks and that they relied on Beeton to help them navigate their responsibilities as mistresses.  Of course, The Book of Household Management adds to the weight of those responsibilities by representing the relationship between mistress and servant as one based on the exchange of disciplinary gazes.   While charging the wife with the “general superintendence of her servants” (17), Beeton stresses that the household manager must also function as a role model because “all servants will naturally fix their attention” (14-15) on her.  This circuitry of surveillance, with the mistress watching over her servants and being in turn watched by them, suggests how little privacy Beeton’s private sphere afforded the middle-class wife, who needed to be ever vigilant and always on duty.

Given the managerial responsibilities Beeton demands of the mistress, it is no wonder that she compares her to the “Commander of an Army, or the leader of any enterprise” (7), thereby proposing that the middle-class wife must possess executive and leadership skills commensurate with her husband’s.  Critics have variously defined the Beeton housewife as a professional who, like a doctor or lawyer, derives her “authority from the command of specialized knowledge” (Guest 11); as “active traffic coordinator” who stood at the center of a  “powerfully economic conception of life,” in which goods passed in and out of the Victorian home  (Buzard 135), and even as the manager of a factory, for “the entire structure of Household Management is industrial in conception (Humble xviii).  So while The Book of Household Management paints a nostalgic portrait of the Victorian home, with its vision of the wife and mother contentedly presiding over the nursery tea table and making gooseberry jam in her spare time, it simultaneously presents a contrasting image of the mistress of the house as an employer, supervisor, overseer and decision-maker.

Beeton’s complex representation of family life, particularly her insistence on the importance of a woman’s managerial skills, owes much to her own difficult experiences with domesticity.  Her father died when she was a child, and her mother quickly remarried Henry Dorling, a widower with four children. The new couple proved prodigiously fertile, producing thirteen half-siblings for Isabella.  There were so many children in the household that Dorling, who managed the races at map iconEpsom, used the cavernous Grandstand, which was built to accommodate 5000 people on Derby Day, as an auxiliary nursery.  As the eldest daughter of this enormous brood, a share of the child minding fell to Isabella, and she quickly distinguished herself by becoming “a tiny adult herself, self-contained, brisk, useful” (Hughes 57). Growing up with so many siblings and often in makeshift circumstances, Isabella Beeton learned early on about the crucial importance of good domestic management.

Her married life with Sam Beeton, proprietor of the S.O. Beeton publishing house, had challenges of its own.  Although he installed his bride in suburban splendor immediately after their marriage, their early years together were overshadowed by the deaths of their first two children, who may have been born syphilitic. (Hughes speculates that Sam Beeton infected his wife, who passed the disease to the children.)  Beeton’s firm “specialized in general knowledge, miscellanies, encyclopaedias, and what we would now call ‘how-to’ books,” and it published the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, the “first successful middle-class woman’s magazine in Britain” (Beetham, “Recipe” 17-18), but while Sam Beeton showed great entrepreneurial flair he was a hapless financial manager.  Money woes forced the couple to give up housekeeping and move into the rooms above his offices on map iconthe Strand for two years.  Ever resourceful, Isabella Beeton began providing free copy for her husband’s publications and thereby found an outlet for her energies, ambitions and talents.  She eventually became a full-time journalist, co-editing the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine with her husband and compiling The Book of Household Management between her last two pregnancies. Mrs. Beeton was not a redoubtable Victorian matron, as many readers over the years have assumed, but a professional author who wrote about domestic management.  She may not have known, as Hughes contends, “a thing about cookery” (181), but she could gather, organize and relay information, skills she drew upon to complete the massive Book of Household Management.  By the early 1860s, she was living what in many respects seems like a thoroughly modern life as a working mother.  Perhaps the only thing to remind us that Isabella Beeton was indeed a Victorian was her early death, at age 28, from puerperal fever following the birth of her fourth child.[4]

Reading The Book of Household Management now, one cannot help but be struck by the utopian impulses that underlie its realist commitment to the ordinary. Surely part of the appeal of Beeton’s book resides in its insistence that the hard work of the household manager, which it represents in great detail, can yield something durable, something that transcends the daily routine in which clean dishes get dirty again and fires need to be endlessly lit.  Like the typical domestic novel of the period, The Book of Household Management has a happy ending.   It transforms the drudgery of housework into an impossible ideal of domesticity and offers its reader the fantasy that good management and organization can create a perfect home, one without disorder, chaos, frayed nerves, bad temper and exhaustion.  But the fantasy exists side-by-side with the drudgery.  The woman who served as an unpaid nursemaid for her parents and later became her husband’s unofficial business partner never underestimates the amount of female labor (both the mistress’s and the maids’) that goes into the creation of the perfect home.  For Beeton, the Ruskinian “place of Peace” is possible but only as the result of great (female) effort.   The Book of Household Management testifies to the cultural investment in domesticity characteristic of nineteenth-century England but also its paradoxical nature: the domestic idyll of the Victorian imagination depended on the hard work of its women.

published May 2012

Susan Zlotnick teaches English at Vassar College.  She is the author of Women Writers and the Industrial Revolution (Johns Hopkins, 1999) as well as numerous articles on nineteenth-century literature and culture.  She is currently at work on a project that explores vulgarity and the making of the English middle class.


Zlotnick, Susan. “On the Publication of Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Management, 1861.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].


Beetham, Margaret.  “Good Taste and Sweet Ordering: Dining with Mrs. Beeton.”  Victorian Literature and Culture 36 (2008): 391-406.  Literature Online.  Web. 20 Oct. 2011.

—.  “Of Recipe Books and Reading in the Nineteenth-Century: Mrs. Beeton and her Cultural Consequences.”  The Recipe Reader: Narratives, Contexts, Traditions.  Eds. Janet Floyd and Laurel Foster.  Burlington: Ashgate, 2003: 15-30.  Print.

Beeton, Isabella.  Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management.  Ed. Nicola Humble. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000.  Print.

Bernstein, Susan and Elsie Michie, eds.  Victorian Vulgarity: Taste in Visual and Verbal Culture.  Burlington: Ashgate, 2009.  Print.

Buzard, James.   “Home Ec. With Mrs. Beeton.” Raritan 17 (1997): 121-35.  Print.

Driver, Elizabeth.   A Bibliography of Cookery Books Published in Britain, 1875-1914.  London: Prospect Books, 1989. Print.

Garson, Marjorie. Moral Taste: Aesthetics, Subjectivity and Social Power in the Nineteenth-Century Novel. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2007.  Print.

Guest, Kristen. “Mrs. Beeton Organizes: Professional Domesticity in Household Management.” Nineteenth-Century Feminisms 7 (2003): 8-22. Print.

Hughes, Kathryn.  The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton.  New York: Knopf, 2006. Print.

Humble, Nicola. Introduction. Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management. By Isabella Beeton. Ed. Nicola Humble. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000.  Print.

Langland, Elizabeth.  Nobody’s Angels: Middle-Class Woman and Domestic Ideology.  Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1995.   Print.

“Our Domestic Woes:  The Servantgalism of the Period or the Alphabet of Woes.” 1870. Victorian Women’s Magazines: An Anthology.  Ed. Margaret Beetham and Kay Boardman.  Manchester: Manchester UP, 2001: 111-114.  Print.

Ruskin, John.  Sesame and Lilies.  1865. Ed. Deborah Epstein Nord.  New Haven: Yale UP, 2002.  Print.

Thackeray, William.  Vanity Fair. 1847-8. Ed. John Sutherland.  Oxford: Oxford UP. 1983.  Print.

Thomas, Kate, “Alimentary: Arthur Conan Doyle and Isabella Beeton.”  Victorian Literature and Culture 36 (2008):  375-390.  JSTOR.  Web.  6 March 2012.


[1] The Book of Household Management’s affinity with the domestic realism that dominates Victorian literature has been noted elsewhere.  For example, Kate Thomas considers Beeton in relationship to Arthur Conan Doyle and concludes that “Beeton and Doyle were founding figures in a literature of everyday life, attentive to and invested in the elementary and the alimentary as tools that could make a middle class. They shared an investment in indexical or encyclopaedic knowledge of the quotidian which, for Beeton, could be mastered and supervised by the middle-class household mistress, and for Doyle, could be animated by anyone who apprenticed themselves to detection through observation and deduction” (378).

[2] For a full discussion of Beeton’s culinary sources, see the chapter entitled “Dine We Must” in Kathryn Hughes’s biography, The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton.

[3] In addition to Garson’s Moral Tastes, see the essays in Victorian Vulgarity: Taste in Verbal and Visual Culture.  Beetham makes a literal connection between class and taste in Beeton’s work; she argues “that the whole project of cookery books like Beeton’s was to link what Bourdieu calls the elaborated meaning of ‘taste’ with the elementary sense of the flavours of food” (“Good Taste” 391).

[4] I am indebted for this outline of Beeton’s life to Hughes.