The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton: The First Domestic Goddess

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9780307278661: The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton: The First Domestic Goddess
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In Victorian England there was only one fail-safe authority on matters ranging from fashion to puddings to scullery maids: Beeton’s Book of Household Management. In this delightful, superbly researched biography, award-winning historian Kathryn Hughes pulls back the lace curtains to reveal the woman behind the book--Mrs. Beeton, the first domestic diva of the modern age--and explores the life of the book itself.

Isabella Beeton was a twenty-one-year-old newlywed with only six months’ experience running her own home when--coaxed by her husband, a struggling publisher--she began to compile her book of recipes and domestic advice. The aspiring mother hardly suspected that her name would become synonymous with housewifery for generations.  Nor would the women who turned to the book for guidance ever have guessed that its author lived in a simple house in the suburbs with a single maid-of-all-work instead of presiding over a well-run estate. Isabella would die at twenty-eight, shortly after the book's publication, never knowing the extent of her legacy.

As her survivors faced bankruptcy, sexual scandal and a bitter family feud that lasted more than a century, Mrs. Beeton’s book became an institution. For an exploding population of the newly affluent, it prescribed not only how to cook and clean but ways to cope with the social flux of the emerging consumer culture: how to plan a party for ten, whip up a hair pomade or calculate how much money was needed to permit the hiring of a footman. In the twentieth century, Mrs. Beeton would be accused of plagiarism, blamed for the dire state of British cookery and used to market everything from biscuits to meat pies.

This elegant, revelatory portrait of a lady journalist, as she lived and as she existed in the minds of her readers, is also a vivid picture of Victorian home life and its attendant anxieties, nostalgia, and aspirations--not so different from those felt in America today.

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About the Author:

Kathryn Hughes is the author of George Eliot: The Last Victorian, which won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Biography, and The Victorian Governess, which remains the standard text on the subject. Educated at Oxford University, she holds a Ph.D. in Victorian studies and now teaches biographical studies at the University of East Anglia. She is a Guardian book critic.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

HEAVY, COLD AND WET SOIL

Mrs. Beeton may have come down to us as a shape-shifter, but her story starts in a settled enough place, at a time when most people still lived a minute from their parents, when men automatically followed their father’s trade, when girls nearly always shared their Christian name with an aunt or cousin, and when it was not unusual to die in the bed in which you had been born. Thursby, in what was then called Cumberland, is a large village wedged between the Lakes and the Borders, flanked by the Pennines on one side and the Solway Firth on the other. It is not on the way to anywhere now, nor was it in the late eighteenth century, when the daily coaches between London and Carlisle were a distant rumble five miles to the northwest.

Most of the 240 inhabitants of Thursby owed their living to the “tolerably fertile” gravel and loam soil, which was parcelled up into a series of small mixed farms, owned by “statesmen” or independent yeomen who employed anything from two to twenty men. In 1786 Thursby got a new curate, John Mayson, grandfather to the future Mrs. Beeton. The curateship and the countryside taken together might suggest something rather smart, a gentleman vicar perhaps, with a private income, an MA from a minor Oxbridge college, and a passion for the flora of the Upper Lakes, the kind of man you find pottering in the background of so many of the people who made and changed the Victorian world. This, certainly, is the impression that Mrs. Beeton’s family would conspire to create in years to come. When Isabella Beeton’s marriage was announced in The Times in 1856, the fact that she was the granddaughter of the late Revd. John Mayson of Cumberland was shoe-horned into the brief notice. Seventy years later when dealing with the National Portrait Gallery, Mayson Beeton insisted on having his mother’s background blurb rewritten to include the important fact that her grandfather had been a man of the cloth.

But if anyone had bothered to look more closely they would have discovered that Revd. John Mayson was not quite the gentlemanly divine that you might suppose. He had been born in 1761 just outside Penrith to another John Mayson, a farmer who was obliged to rent his land from another man. As his Christian name suggests, John Mayson had the luck of being the oldest son, the one in whom the family’s slight resources would be invested as a hedge against a chancy future (there were a couple of younger sisters who would need, somehow, to be taken care of). John would have gone to school locally and left around the age of fourteen, a superior kind of village boy.

The next clear sighting comes in 1785 when, at the age of twenty-four, Mayson was ordained as a deacon in the Church of England. The following year he became a fully fledged clergyman and was sent immediately as curate to St. Andrew’s, Thursby. But this was hardly the beginning of a steady rise through the Church’s hierarchy. Stuck for an extraordinary forty years at Thursby, it looked as if the Revd. John Mayson was destined to become the oldest curate in town. On two separate occasions he was passed over for the post of vicar, quite possibly because of his lack of formal education or social clout: St. Andrew’s was a large parish with a fine church said to have been built by David I of Scotland—it needed a gentleman to run it. In 1805 the job went to a Joseph Pattison and then, on his death eight years later, to William Tomkyns Briggs, whose dynastically inflected name was buttressed with a Cambridge MA.

It wasn’t until 1825 that Mayson’s luck finally changed. At the age of sixty-four—retirement was not an option, except for a man of means—he was appointed vicar to the nearby parish of Great Orton, a substantial living worth perhaps £250 which brought with it the care of two hundred souls. Yet even this was not quite the opportunity that it might seem. The living was in the gift of Sir Wastal Briscoe, the lord of the manor who inhabited several hundred lush acres at nearby Crofton Hall. The previous incumbent of St. Giles had been Briscoe’s brother and it was his intention that the living should pass eventually to one of his young grandsons who were being educated for the Church. Mayson, who probably already owed his appointment as curate at Thursby to Briscoe in the first place, was exactly the right candidate to caretake St. Giles until his patron wanted it back.

The life of a clergyman without polish, money or pull was not a particularly easy one. It was geared to pleasing the big house, to judging its moods and whims, and making sure you fitted its purpose. It was, though, enough to get married on, as long as you were careful in your choice of bride. Six years into the curateship at Thursby, John Mayson married a young woman whose name suggests that she had some ballast behind her. Isabella Trimble (or Tremel or Trumble—spelling was still an infant business and names changed with each entry in the parish register) was the daughter of a reasonably prosperous maltster, that is brewer. On his death in 1785 George Trimble divided his estate in the classic manner, with his eldest son inheriting the business along with Trimble’s partner, while the younger brothers received “movable goods” in the form of wheat and cash. Isabella, the only girl, was a residual legatee, which gave her perhaps £80—not an enormous sum, but combined with the £100 that John inherited from his own father, just enough to marry on.

The first baby arrived in 1793, ten months after the wedding, as first babies mostly did in the nineteenth century. She was called Esther after John’s mother. Three years later she was joined by yet another John Mayson and then, five years after that, by Benjamin, named biblically for his mother’s youngest brother. The long spacing between the children, combined with the early evidence of fertility, suggests that there were probably other babies, born months too soon, some still and grey, others little more than bloody clots. These are the first of the many lost children that hover over the story of Mrs. Beeton, Benjamin Mayson’s daughter, each one’s failure to spark into life marking the moment when the future had to be imagined all over again.

Of the three Mayson children living, neither of the boys would see forty. John—perhaps originally destined for the Church, to be slipped into a place where Briscoe needed a caretaker or a willing plodder—died at the age of twenty-four “after a long and severe illness,” according to a notice in the Carlisle Journal, and was buried at Thursby. The death of the elder son, that frail container of a family’s best hopes, is always hard, but twenty years later John was followed to the grave by Benjamin, now living far away in London. It was time for another entry in the Carlisle Journal: “Suddenly, Mr. B. Mayson, linen factor, Milk Street, London, son of the Rev. John Mayson, aged 39 years.”

In the early days, though, when the Mayson children were young and bonny, there was an almost pastoral feel to life at Thursby. Although he was only the curate, Mayson was able to live in the vicarage, a handsome building that would shore up anyone’s sense of battered dignity. The diary of his fellow cleric Thomas Rumney of Watermillock tells of an Austenish existence of long tramps, impromptu tea parties and lovesick letter writing. In August 1803 Rumney walked six and a half hours to get to Thursby from his own parish, and then proceeded to conduct an epistolary courtship with one of John Mayson’s sisters at the thumping cost of 11d a letter.

It was a small life, and it was never going to be enough to hold an energetic young man with neither property or business interests. While John, the eldest Mayson child, was kept close to the family by failing health, his brother Benjamin had other plans. Frustratingly, all record of Benjamin’s early life has disappeared. Proving even more elusive than his daughter Isabella, Benjamin refuses to show up in school records, apprenticeship registers, or even, though we would hope not to find a clergyman’s son here, in the local assizes. He may have received his education at nearby Wigton Grammar School, where Briscoe had pull. Or it is possible that he was sent to Green Row on the coast a few miles away, a forward-looking place which imparted a “modern” curriculum of maths and careful penmanship to young men who were destined for the counting house and the clerks’ bench rather than an ivy-covered quad. Benjamin’s grandsons, Isabella’s boys, will get a gentleman’s education at Marlborough, followed by the royal military academy at Sandhurst and Oxford. But those days are seventy years away. Benjamin Mayson, the second son of a poor curate, needed a grounding that would fit him to make his way in the brisk, new commercial world that was even now impinging on rural Cumberland.

In 1780 cotton processing had been introduced into the nearby village of Dalston from Manchester. The conditions were perfect: plenty of water power from the River Cardew and good communication links back down to Manchester, Liverpool, and beyond. By the time Benjamin was thinking about his future, there were three cotton mills and a large flax mill in Dalston, and the principal owners were, as luck would have it, old friends of his mother’s family. All over the country neighbouring households like the Cowens and the Trimbles did business together, married one another’s daughters, and blended their hard-won capital in carefully judged expansion plans. It is very likely that it was to the Cowens’ Mill Ellers, on the edge of Dalston, that Benjamin was sent to serve his apprenticeship.

This, though, is a guess. Not for another eighteen years does Benjamin finally show up properly in the records. By 1831 he has moved to London and set up as a “Manchester Warehouseman”—a linen wholesaler who distributes cloth woven in the hot, damp sheds of the northwest to the fashionable drapers’ shops of London. From the spring of 1834 he was living in classy Upper Baker Street, Marylebone, paying a sizable rent of £65 a year, and from 1831 he also had business premises across town at Clement’s Court, in the shadow of St. Paul’s. If Benjamin Mayson’s daily commute of four miles sounds unconvincingly modern, it is worth bearing in mind that in 1829 a firm called Shillibeer’s started a regular horsedrawn omnibus service between Paddington and the City. Londoners were becoming as used as everyone else to widening horizons and for Mayson, who had made the four-hundred-mile journey from Cumberland, the daily journey to the City must have seemed as nothing.

So by the age of thirty Benjamin Mayson could be said to be doing rather well for himself. He was a vicar’s son and, though not quite a gentleman, was established in a gentlemanly line of business. Mayson, it is important to understand, was not a draper who stood behind a counter unrolling bolts of sprigged cotton for the approval of sharp-eyed housewives. He was a wholesaler, a merchant, a man who supplied the smarter kind of drapers with bulk orders and sealed deals with a handshake rather than a few warm coins. It was a profitable business. With the world getting dirtier and more polite at the same time, there was a hunger for fresh linen. No one with any self-respect wanted to be seen in a smutty shirt or streaky dress. The middle-class wardrobe was expanding and becoming more particular, good news for anyone who supplied the materials to make all those clean sleeves and dainty collars. And, as if that weren’t enough bright fortune, Benjamin Mayson had arranged his private life carefully too. At an age when most men had already married, he was still a bachelor, having managed to avoid being jostled by loneliness or lust into a hasty match. He was, by anyone’s reckoning, quite a catch.

Elizabeth Jerrom, the woman whom Benjamin Mayson would marry, was born on 24 May 1815, three weeks before the great victory at Waterloo. Her parents Isaac and Mary were domestic servants, working for one of the big houses around Marylebone, part of that feverish development of gracious squares that had been built towards the end of the last century to house the newer aristocracy during the “London” part of their wandering year. When the couple had married eleven months earlier at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, they had signed the register clearly, confident in themselves and their newly merged identity. The same, though, cannot be said of their witnesses. William Standage, Mary’s father, has done his

best but the sprawling scratch he makes in the register is indecipher-

able: underneath the parish clerk has been obliged—tactfully, crossly?—to write out his name properly, for the record. Mrs. Beeton is only twenty years away from people who would be happier signing themselves with a cross.

Elizabeth’s mother, Mary Jerrom, the only one of Mrs. Beeton’s grandparents who was to play a significant role in her life, had been born Mary Standage in 1794 in the ancient village of Westhampnett. Her father

was a groom on the Duke of Richmond’s estate at nearby Goodwood. William Standage had himself been born nine miles away, at Petworth where the huge Standage clan had for generations lived and worked with horses. But it was William who was the star of the stables. In 1792 he was headhunted by the horse-mad Duke of Richmond to work as a groom at Goodwood. Given that Mrs. Beeton would be so exact about what you should pay your groom, it is nice to be able to report that in 1792 her great-grandfather was getting £18 a year which, by 1807, had risen to £24, with extra allowances for clothing and travel.

The horse was God at Goodwood. When the 3rd Duke of Richmond inherited in 1756 his first thought was not to rebuild the unimpressive house but to commission the architect William Chambers to build a magnificent stable block as a kind of love song to the most important creatures in his life. Complete with Doric columns and a triumphal arch, the block was home to fifty-four lucky animals—hunters mainly, but from 1802 racers too. Family myth has it that it was William Standage who helped the Duke plot the track that would become one of the most important racecourses in the land.

Standage, who married a woman called Elizabeth, produced a string of daughters: first Mary, next Sarah and then Harriet. All three girls married men who worked with horses. This is not as odd as it might seem today. You can only marry someone you’ve already met, and a groom’s daughter in the early nineteenth century met an awful lot of grooms. But none of the girls stayed in Sussex. Instead they followed the classic migratory pattern of their generation and poured into London, working first as servants in aristocratic mansions and then marrying men from the stables, men who knew or were known to their fathers. In time these men would set up as job masters or livery stable keepers, hiring themselves and their carriage out for a fee, doing for several families what they had formerly done for just one. By the end of the nineteenth century, you could still find the grandsons of these people working as omnibus and cab drivers, transporting restless crowds of shopgirls, clerks and housewives around a teeming central London.
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