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18 September 2014
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Victorian Britain

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Victorian Britain: The Cookery Book as Source Material

By Lynn Abrams
Image of a cook

Although Mrs Beeton is known as a source of culinary inspiration, she meant much more than this to her contemporaries. She was the very embodiment of the Victorian ideology of a woman's place being in the home.


One of the most famous books of the Victorian age is The Book of Household Management. With a History of the Origin, Properties, and Uses of all things connected with Home Life and Comfort by Isabella Mary Beeton (London, first edition 1861).

It's a useful source for social historians, because it's the best example of Victorian advice literature aimed at the new middle-class 'housewife' and her household staff. In the preface Isabella Beeton tells the reader what motivated her to write this book - her aim was to educate the housewife in order that she might achieve the perfect home.

'... there is no more fruitful source of family discontent than a housewife's badly cooked dinners and untidy ways.'

'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.'

In her introduction to the first edition of the book Isabella Beeton demonstrates her acceptance of the ideology of separate spheres - the woman at home, the man in public - and she states clearly that women are to blame if the home is not a welcoming place for the man to return to. The home and domestic management is women's responsibility. This book is designed to help women achieve one of their most important roles in life.

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