Between 1780 and 1850 Britain was industrialising. Towns were transforming into cities and the landscape changing from subsistence farming into one of large factories and mills.
Traditional crafts were being displaced by machinery and new living spaces created cramped and squalid conditions. These significant economic and social changes influenced the ways in which male and female roles were perceived.
The notion of ‘spheres of separation’ considered a women’s place to be in the home, and regarded it as a haven from the chaotic and busy world of factories and business. Sufficient emotional fulfillment was to be found as a wife and mother and these new standards ensured numerous publications were sold informing women how to be good household managers. Marriage signified maturity and respectability, but motherhood was idealised as a world of virtue and female fulfilment. A man on the other hand was to be found in the public realm of business and politics.
Queen Victoria herself characterised this domestic age by presenting herself as a kind of femininity centred around the family, motherhood and respectability.
Accompanied by her beloved husband Albert and surrounded by her 9 children in the lavish but homely surroundings of Balmoral Castle, Victoria became the icon of late 19th century middle-class domesticity – the ‘Victorian’ era was to last from 1837 to 1901 and came to embody the idea of a home as a cosy, domestic space.
It is no wonder then in 1861 at the age of 25, Isabella Beeton’s household manual entitled ‘Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management’ became a bestseller for over 50 years.
A compilation of household hints, recipes and Victorian advice, it exemplified perfect middle-class housewife behaviour and that of her household staff. In the preface, Isabella tells the reader what motivated her to write the book- that was, to educate the housewife in order that she might achieve the perfect home. ‘Men are now so well served out of doors- at their clubs, well-ordered taverns, and dining houses- that, in order to compete with the attraction of these places, a mistress must be thoroughly acquainted with the theory and practice of cookery, as well as be perfectly conversant with all the other arts of making and keeping a comfortable home’.
Victorian ideology deemed the home and domestic management a women’s responsibility, and that women were to blame if the home was not a welcoming place for the man to return to. This book was designed to help women achieve one of their most important roles in life.
The reality of middle class domesticity in England at this time was in stark contrast to Mrs Beeton’s impeccably manicured cucumber sandwiches. (p. 1117). It is a misconception that most middle-class women could afford servants. Some had one servant to help repair underclothes and the washing and scrubbing of floors and non-flushing toilets, but certainly insufficient to allow her to spend her days embroidering and playing the piano, however women actively moulded this culture to serve their own interests. The domestic world was a cultural expression of the female space, a place where women could demonstrate power and actively engage in their own lives through their fashions, etiquette, religious devotion and social and charitable engagements.
Today Mrs Beeton is largely regarded as the first ‘domestic goddess’, a title the delightful Nigella Lawson personifies for us today. ‘Mrs Beeton’, as she preferred to be called (her matronly manor only served to endorse her relentless instruction) success was largely attributable to the fact her husband was a publisher, and she actually copied most recipes from the successful cooks of the day, however by 1868 three years after her death, nearly 2 million copies had been sold and by 1907 it had expanded to over 73 chapters.
By this time it had been updated to include French and colonial methods of cookery. As the new editor’s preface laments on the modernized version, ‘we have relinquished almost entirely the old British prejudices against things foreign and dealt with comprehensively foreign cookeries so that Britons living under other skies may learn how to combine the dishes of their adopted country with those of the Motherland’.
Isabella was the first cookbook author to lay out the ingredients first, followed by a method of how to cook them, and include prices and cooking times – much like Jamie Oliver does today.
From philosophical commentary, to tips on engaging servants, to notes on every possible edible mammal, Isabella professed an expert on every domestic topic imaginable in the late 19th century. On the advancement of European civilisation she notes,
‘The successive stages through which man has advanced to civilization may be classified in three divisions: Savage, Barbarous and Civilized. The first is represented by the savage of the South American forests who lives on wild plants and animals; the second by the African who tills the ground and domesticates animals for his use; the third by the Civilized European, associated with all that the word denotes, of moral, intellectual, social and material development’.
Whilst some of her recipes seem dated today, her cookbook experienced a new found resurgence thanks to the phenomenal Downtown Abbey series (the dinner scene’s were all worked from her recipes) and her sound advice on practical matters of friendship and household comfort still resonate today.
Here is some of her more practical household advice and some timeless recipes….
On a ‘Judicious Choice of Friends’ –
‘The daily round of work is much more pleasant if cheered by intercourse with friends, who are often able to give, or pleased to receive, help in the little difficulties that may occur in everyday life. Friendships should not be hastily formed, or the heart given to every new-comer. Addison, the great essayist observes that- “A friendship which makes the least noise is very often the most useful; for which reason, I should prefer a prudent friend to a zealous one”‘.
On ‘Conversation‘ –
‘One should never dwell unduly on the petty annoyances and trivial disappointments of the day. Many people get into the bad habit of talking incessantly of the worries of their children, not realising that to many of their hearers these are uninteresting if not wearisome subjects’.
And my favourite –
‘A wife should never allow a word about any faults of her husband to pass her lips; and in conversation, ‘From one’s own point of view, also, it is well not to start upon a topic without having sufficient knowledge to discuss it with intelligence’.
Wise words indeed!!
On ‘Cheerfulness‘ –
‘We cannot too strongly insist on the vital importance of always preserving an equable good temper amidst all the little cares and worries of domestic life. Many women may be heard to declare that men cannot realize the petty anxieties of a household. But a women must cultivate that tact and forbearance without which no man can hope to succeed in his career. The true women combines with mere tact that subtle sympathy which makes her the loved companion and friend alike of husband, children and all around her’.
And if you ever wondered how life was managed before mobile phones,
on ‘Visits of Friendship‘ –
‘It has now become general for the mistress of a house to set aside one day in every week, fortnight or month, on which she is at home to receive callers. Wherever this is known to be the case, casual visitors should make it a rule to call on that day’. (Cards would be issued to inform friends & acquaintances of a fixed ‘at home’ day).
‘Afternoon tea should be provided by the hostess, fresh supplies of it, with thin bread and butter, fancy sandwiches, sweets, cakes, ect being forthcoming as fresh guests arrive’.
The amazing colour plate illustrations.
And some of her amazing recipes… I have made conversions from pounds (lb) and ounces (oz) to the metric system and updated cooking terms for today.
Entrée – Scallops in Shells
Ingredients – 12 scallops with shells, a cupful of breadcrumbs, 50g butter, 1 cup white sauce (béchamel), cayenne, salt & pepper, a little chopped parsley and a squeeze of lemon
Method – Cleanse 6 shells, butter them and strew in a few breadcrumbs. Put 3 scallops in each, season them with the cayenne and chopped parsley, and a drop or two of lemon juice. Put a little pepper and salt with the breadcrumbs, cover the scallops with white sauce, sprinkle with breadcrumbs and place little pieces of butter on the top. Bake for about 20 minutes.
Time – 20 mins, Av. Cost – 2s, (20c!) Seasonable – for January to June
Main – Noisettes of Beef with Mushrooms (Fillet of Beef with Mushrooms)
Ingredients – 1kg fillet of steak, 2 fresh mushrooms, 1 finely chopped shallot, 1/2 tspn finely chopped parsley, 50g butter, 1 cup brown sauce (beef gravy/jus), salt & pepper
Method – Cut the meat into fillets of even size, not less than 1/2 inch in thickness, and as round as possible. Chop the mushrooms finely, add to them the shallot, parsley, and a little salt and pepper and mix well together. Place a little of the mixture, in the form of a round pat, in the centre of each fillet. Heat the butter in a saucepan, put in the fillets the farced side down, fry quickly, then turn and fry the other side more slowly. To serve, arrange the noisettes in 2 rows on a bed of mashed potato (spinach may be used instead), and pour the hot sauce round.
Time – about 10 mins, Average cost – 4s, Sufficient – for 6 or 7 persons
Broad Beans with Parsley sauce
Ingredients – 2 cups of broad beans, 1 cup of chicken stock, a small bunch of savoury herbs (sage, marjoram, thyme & parsley), a small lump of sugar, the yolk of 1 egg, 1/4 of a cup of cream, pepper & salt to taste
Method – Procure some young and freshly gathered beans and shell sufficient to make 2 cups, boil them until nearly done, then drain them and put them into a stewpan (saucepan) with the stock, finely minced herbs and sugar. Simmer the beans until they are perfectly tender and the liquid has reduced a little, then beat up the yolk of the egg with the cream and add this to the beans. Let the whole get thoroughly hot, and, when on the point of simmering, serve. Should the beans be very large, the skins should be removed previously to boiling them, they are, however, more quickly removed after they are boiled.
Time – 10 minutes to boil the beans, 15 minutes to completion
Ingredients – Take 6 fresh eggs, the weight of 5 of them in castor sugar, and of 3 in very fine dry flour (cornflour), the rind of 1 lemon
Method – Put the sugar into a shallow, flat bottomed dish, and break the eggs onto it, being careful to smell each one as you break it. Add to this the grated rind of the lemon, and beat the whole for 20 minutes. Then sift in the flour, stirring as lightly as possible until all mixed in. Put into a well buttered tin and a brisk oven immediately.
Time – 30 to 45 minutes, Sufficient – for 1 cake
Coffee Éclairs (Fr. Éclairs au Café)
Ingredients – 280ml of milk, 60g butter, 60g cornflour, 60g plain flour, 3 eggs, 1/2 tsp vanilla essence, pinch of salt, 60g caster sugar, Moka custard for filling (or freshly whipped cream), coffee icing for covering.
Method – Put the water, butter, sugar and salt into a stewpan (saucepan) and when boiling stir in the cornflour and plain flour (previously sifted and mixed together). Work it with a wooden spoon over the fire, sufficiently long to produce a soft paste which will leave the side and the bottom of the pan clean. Draw the stewpan from the fire, add the flavouring essence, and work the eggs in gradually (leaving out 1 white). Beat the paste well for some minutes, then put it in a large forcing or savoy bag with a plain tube, and force out even sized shapes, similar to finger biscuits, on to a lightly buttered baking tin, about 1 inch apart from each other. Bake to a nice fawn colour in a moderate oven. When done, split the sides with a sharp knife, and fill each with 1 teaspoon of Moka custard. Have ready some coffee icing, and dip each éclair into it, so as to cover the surface and sides well and smoothly. Place the éclairs onto a wire tray to set, and dish up when required.