three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
24-Sept-Oct-2006
user_rating: 
0

The First Domestic Goddess

A-TheShortLifeAndLongTimes...Though comparisons to Nigella Lawson, Martha Stewart, and the fictitious Betty Crocker abound, there was ever only one Mrs. Beeton. What began as a column for her husband’s magazine grew into Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management. Originally published in 1861, the book, which offered a miscellany of recipes, tips on animal husbandry, medical advice, and words for dealing with servants, became an essential handbook for Victorian domesticity. As Kathryn Hughes reveals, the book borrowed liberally from a number of sources, but it was the knowing voice of Mrs. Beeton that gave birth to a British cultural touchstone. For all her authority and long-lasting influence, Isabella Beeton (1836-1865) died in childbirth at age 28, yet her namesake book remains in print to this day.
Knopf. 496 Pages. $29.95. ISBN: 0307263738

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Ms. Hughes … treats Mrs. Beeton’s work as a window onto the world of mid-19th-century England. It serves admirably as an index to the daily problems faced by Victorian women, as well as their social aspirations." William Grimes

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Lavish amounts of well-informed speculation, applied like plaster, hold together the bits she can actually document, but the result is a narrative that could have come straight from Trollope. Vicars and curates, tradesmen’s families edging up the social ladder, tangled marriage plots—for lovers of Barsetshire, it’s all here." Laura Shapiro

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"What readers may find the most striking … are the parallels between newly industrial England and today—concern over food quality and contamination, consumer choice that bred anxieties over presentation, and societal expectations that pressured women to be originators of beauty when in reality, they had to be domestic servants as well, or nothing would get clean." Betsy Aoki

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Ms. Hughes’s book … navigates the social anthropology of the Victorians on an accessible middlebrow level, rigorously eschewing the pop psychology and psycho-history that are the pitfalls of popular biography." Barbara Amiel

Washington Post 3 of 5 Stars
"What has been a charming willingness to ramble through odd byways becomes in the book’s final quarter an annoying tendency to wander among whatever digressions Hughes fancies (tightly laced corsets, overcooked vegetables, you name it), with only belated returns to the subject allegedly at hand. A more disciplined approach might have saved Hughes from her excesses and pared her text to its essence as superb social history." Wendy Smith

Chicago Sun-Times 2 of 5 Stars
"If Hughes intends to pique readers’ interest in her subject, she goes about it in a funny way. By cloaking a thought-provoking subject in close to 500 pages of text and voluminous research, she confuses rather than clarifies." Natalie Danford

Critical Summary

There was good reason to keep the details of Isabella Beeton’s death (and life) a secret: her book had caught the attention of Victorian England, and her widowed husband—and publisher—didn’t want to break the marketing spell. Granted access to the family archives, Kathryn Hughes draws on extensive research and her previous books (George Eliot; The Victorian Governess) to unravel the life of this domestic icon. If Hughes sometimes throws too many facts and images in the way of this highly entertaining story, she also presents a compelling picture of Victorian life.

Cited by the Critics

Barchester Towers | Anthony Trollope (1857): Laura Shapiro of the New York Times Book Review cites the Barsethire series of novels by Anthony Trollope as hailing from the same era as Mrs. Beeton. In Barchester Towers, the second in the series, the Bishop of Barchester passes away, and a clerical struggle for succession ensues in the pastoral town.