Review of ‘The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton’ by Kathryn Hughes

This book is like an unappetising salad. A few colourful crunchy bits mixed in with a lot of boring, limp leaves.

Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management is one of the most famous non-fiction books in English. I haven’t read it, but I know of it. Who was Mrs Beeton, anyway? Was she even a real person? This book investigates Isabella’s life (she died aged 28) and the legacy of her book in the Victorian era and beyond. I wish the author had stuck to this concept but unfortunately the biography is padded out with biographies of various relatives, too much historical context (I do not want to read pages and pages about horse racing) and a lot about the husband’s publishing company. If I was a scholar looking for information about these, it would be an ideal read, but even so, the writing style is bloated and irritating. Something can’t be close by, it has to be a ‘hop, skip and jump’. Something can’t be at the end, it has to be at the ‘fag end’. The author also warns us not to judge people’s characters by their faces, which is just patronising.

There were some interesting things in this book, such as how common syphilis was but even though it was probably the cause of illness and deaths in the Beeton family, the women would not have known they carried the disease as doctors would keep it from them. Another item of interest is that the recipes in the famous book were all plagiarised from various sources and that Mrs Beeton wasn’t even known as a great cook. I didn’t get much sense of what kind of person she was, other than hard-working and long-suffering. Every so often there is an ‘interlude’ about the quirks of the book and these are the most fascinating to read.

In summary, reading this book wasn’t a total waste of time but I did find it quite frustrating. I ended up skim-reading much of it. To return to my salad simile, you need to pick out the tasty bits and leave the rest.

First published in 2005.

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