Isabella Mary Mayson is best known by her married name: Mrs. Beeton. She was born in Cheapside, London on March 12, 1836. Her father, Benjamin Mayson, died when she was four, leaving her mother Elizabeth pregnant and with four young children. Three years later Elizabeth married Henry Dorling, a widower with four children of his own. The blended family, which would eventually include a total of 17 children, lived in Epsom, Surrey. As the eldest, Isabella assumed the responsibility of babysitting and assisted in general management of the house, experience and expertise valuable for her later professional career.
In 1851 Isabella was sent to Heidelberg, Germany, where she honed her skills as a pianist. Fluent in French and German, Isabella also began her culinary studies in making pastry. She returned to Epsom in 1854 where she furthered her lessons in pastry-making from a local baker.
At roughly the same time, Isabella met Samuel Orchart Beeton, a successful publisher of books and popular magazines, and they were married in July of 1856. During the subsequent years the couple suffered through several miscarriages and two infants dying at a very young age. Their third child, Orchart Beeton, was born on December 2, 1863. Less than a year later Isabella became pregnant with her fourth child. Mayson Moss Beeton was born on January 29, 1865, he and his older brother the only Beeton children to grow into adulthood. Isabella, tragically, was stricken with puerperal sepsis and died on February 6. She was only 28 years of age.
Isabella’s life was filled with sadness and was much too short. Nevertheless, she and her husband were a prolific team. Between 1859 and 1861, Isabella threw herself into work as a way to deal with the emotional pain. She began by translating German and French stories for The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine: an Illustrated Journal combing Practical Information, Instruction & Amusement. In 1859 she began to write articles on cooking and other domestic skills. The assignment turned into a monthly column, and Isabella found an enthusiastic audience among upwardly mobile women readers trying to manage busy households without the benefit of a traditional support structure. By 1860 Samuel Beeton announced a circulation figure of 60,000 copies for the monthly magazine.
The Beetons travelled to Paris in March 1860 for research and to meet with Adolphe Goubaud, the publisher of the French magazine Le Moniteur de la Mode. They secured a business arrangement with Goubaud, the Frenchman agreeing to provide patterns and illustrations for The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine. For the redesigned magazine, Samuel was joined as editor by Isabella, who was described as “Editress” in the first new edition on May 1. As well as being co-editors, the couple were also equal partners. In September 1861, Samuel Beeton founded The Queen, the ladies’ Newspaper, a weekly magazine giving a first-hand glimpse of high society with details on London’s social events. Included was advice on ladies-oriented occupations, literature and amusements.
“Mrs. Beeton” had become a household name by October of 1861 when Samuel collected the 2,751 supplements and published them as a single volume. The book’s official and complete title was: 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, edited by Mrs. Isabella Beeton.
The Book of Household Management — a less cumbersome title — was an immediate bestseller (the book recorded sales over two million by 1868) and soon acquired its more common title: Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management.
What moved me, in the first instance, to attempt a work like this, was the discomfort and suffering which I had seen brought upon men and women by household mismanagement. I have always thought that there is no more fruitful source of family discontent than a housewife’s badly cooked dinners and untidy ways. 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. ~preface written by Isabella Beeton
Isabella embraced the traditional roles of the woman as queen of the domestic sphere and the man as king of the public sphere. She is unequivocal in maintaining that the home and its management were the woman’s responsibility. The book was meant to be a collection of useful information for the lady of the house. Biographer Kathryn Hughes points out in her introduction to a facsimile edition that Beeton had realized there were “an increasing number of women like her, members of the new urban, commercial middle classes, who urgently needed advice on how to run a home. Hiring and managing servants, dealing with tricky tradesmen, spotting a high fever in a child — all these were skills which girls no longer learned automatically from their mothers. ‘Mrs. Beeton’ would step in to become a kind of universal mother.”
Although the book contained hundreds of recipes and was also known as Mrs. Beeton’s Cookbook, most of the recipes were not Isabella’s originals. Her strength was creating an organizational structure for vast quantities of data and not necessarily in cooking. However, it is noteworthy that this was the first book to list ingredients at the start of the recipe, to note recommended cooking times, and to be accompanied by color engravings of the finished dish.
The success of Beeton’s Book of Household Management did not provide adequate earnings to overcome the losses sustained through Samuel’s other failed ventures. The sale of The Queen in 1863 boosted their financial prosperity enough to allow for a third visit to Paris. Returning to England pregnant and freshly inspired, Isabella began working on an abridged version of the Book of Household Management, which was to be titled The Dictionary of Every-Day Cookery. Tragically it was while finishing the proofs that Isabella gave birth to Mayson, followed by her death eight days later.
The Dictionary of Every-Day Cookery was published in the same year, Samuel writing this tribute to his wife:
Her works speak for themselves; and, although taken from this world in the very height and strength, and in the early days of womanhood, she felt satisfaction—so great to all who strive with good intent and warm will—of knowing herself regarded with respect and gratitude.
In May 1866, financial troubles again plaguing Samuel Beeton, he sold the rights to the Book of Household Management to Ward, Lock and Tyler. In subsequent publications the details of Isabella’s death were suppressed in order to protect their investment by letting readers think she was still alive and creating recipes, but those volumes gradually became less reflective of the original. Nevertheless, since the initial publication in 1861, the Book of Household Management has been issued in numerous hardback and paperback editions, translated into several languages, and has never been out of print.
Isabella Beeton’s popularity continued to grow after her death. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term “Mrs Beeton” became used as a generic name for “an authority on cooking and domestic subjects” as early as 1891. A 1934 radio broadcast titled “Meet Mrs. Beeton” was followed by a 1937 documentary, the first of many documentaries and docudramas. Mayson Beeton worked with H. Montgomery Hyde to produce the biography Mr and Mrs Beeton, published in 1951, one of several biographies published over the decades since her death.
Samuel Beeton died of tuberculosis in 1877. Mayson Beeton gained his own place in history, a fascinating story which can be read about HERE.