November 25, 2003

The Book of Household Management, Isabella Beeton

Distributed Proofreading and Project Gutenberg have provided a plain-text version of this classic of mid-Victorian domestic competence and social uneasiness. As its title-page now says,

THE BOOK OF HOUSEHOLD MANAGEMENT;

Comprising Information for the

MISTRESS,
HOUSEKEEPER,
COOK,
KITCHEN-MAID,
BUTLER,
FOOTMAN,
COACHMAN,
VALET,
UPPER AND UNDER HOUSE-MAIDS,
LADY'S-MAID,
MAID-OF-ALL-WORK,
LAUNDRY-MAID,
NURSE AND NURSE-MAID,
MONTHLY, WET, AND SICK NURSES,
ETC. ETC.

ALSO, SANITARY, MEDICAL, & LEGAL MEMORANDA;

WITH A HISTORY OF THE ORIGIN, PROPERTIES, AND USES OF ALL THINGS
CONNECTED WITH HOME LIFE AND COMFORT.

BY MRS. ISABELLA BEETON.

She argues that domestic comfort has commercial competition¹, and therefore a housewife needs to be even more competent than in the past. The details of what a good under house maid should do were probably pored over by the women who couldn't afford a housemaid at all.

Possibly because Mrs. Beeton wasn't brought up a housewife, she researched and wrote a compendium that isn't just full of detail and instruction but is usefully laid out, sort of like an O'Reilly Nutshell handbook - it starts with an Analytical Index, with pointers given not by page-number but by section-number. I suspect this made it easier to collate and update. (It was certainly easier to adapt to the plain-text version, which is just as well - the layout was complex; sidebars, inline illos., different type sizes and faces².)

This is a wonderfully informative book if you read nineteenth-century literature. It has, for instance, a table of the usual yearly wages for two dozen servant's jobs, with or without particular benefits and expectations[21]; the legal standing of the I.O.U., and which feints to disavow one would or wouldn't stand in court[2723]; a summary of the fiscal responsibility of a woman in and out of marriage[2725]; details of what outer garments a lady sheds during what kinds of courtesy calls[27]; recipes for cleaning cloth[2267], mending china[2331], preserving food[822]; and historical side-notes and jokes, so that Bay-leaves have one culinary entry warning about use and overuse[180], but another that begins with a recipe for a fish sauce[512] and ends with a poetic essay:

THE BAY.--We have already described (see No. 180) the difference between the cherry-laurel (_Prunus Laurus cerasus_) and the classic laurel (_Laurus nobilis_), the former only being used for culinary purposes. The latter beautiful evergreen was consecrated by the ancients to priests and heroes, and used in their sacrifices. "A crown of bay" was the earnestly-desired reward for great enterprises, and for the display of uncommon genius in oratory or writing. It was more particularly sacred to Apollo, because, according to the fable, the nymph Daphne was changed into a laurel-tree. The ancients believed, too, that the laurel had the power of communicating the gift of prophecy, as well as poetic genius; and, when they wished to procure pleasant dreams, would place a sprig under the pillow of their bed. It was the symbol, too, of victory, and it was thought that the laurel could never be struck by lightning. From this word comes that of "laureate;" Alfred Tennyson being the present poet laureate, crowned with laurel as the first of living bards.

That's a typical leap; one is toddling along in the cookie-recipes and gets a archaeological reconstruction of the spread of cereal grains after the Deluge, or the provision of water to the metropolises of the ancient world. Miss Nightingale's opinion of strengthening digestible food might turn up in the baking section or next to the Invalid's Cutlet[1865].

I haven't tried any of the recipes, but they look well-thought-out. Most of them have heading for ingredients, mode (instructions), time, average cost, volume or servings produced, and when the recipe is seasonable. In honor of Patrick O'Brien and the wholly decent movie, I might try Aunt Nelly's Pudding[1224], which seems to be as much treacle as suet. There's even a recipe for portable soup[180], if I want to spend more than twenty hours cooking.

URL: http://www.gutenberg.net/1/0/1/3/10136/. Versions ending "-8" are in ISO-8859-1, the others are in US-ASCII.

¹ From fancy saloons, for instance, or men's clubs, as discussed in Consumer Society in American History: A Reader.

²Yes, I did a little of the gruntwork. Love me now, avoid the rush. I am really impressed by whoever did the post-processing to smooth everybody's attempts at the gruntwork into one usable text; the credits given are for Jonathan Ingram & Sandra Brown.)

So wrote clew in Cookery. , History (19th c.). | TrackBack
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