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The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton Paperback – 3 Jul 2006
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'This is a wonderful book, so masterful and scholarly and wise, there will never need to be another. Hughes is an elegant writer, and a capable digger; no stone, however small or inaccessible, is left unturned.' Rachel Cooke, Observer
'This is a brilliant biography, which tells the absorbing, strange and sad story with great aplomb. Kathryn Hughes has seen quite rightly, that one of the most important parts of the story is what happened after Isabella's death and, indeed, Sam's, and the life of Mrs Beeton is continued to the present day. It is so magical a feat of imagination, of intricate learning lightly worn, that you know that Kathryn Hughes would write a wonderful novel. But this splendid book is as good as any.' Spectator
From the Author
Q and A with Kathryn Hughes
What drew you to Mrs Beeton?
When I was doing my PhD in Victorian history I came across the fact that she died when she was 28. Like everyone, I thought she was an elderly matron. I was staggered that a girl of my age (I was 28 at the time) had not only had four pregnancies but had written a book which made her name live for ever. I wanted to know more. Also, before starting my PhD I spent three unhappy years working as a features writer on womens magazines. The editor would come in and say: We need some cookery copy. Cobbling it together, I learnt that it was all in the presentation and not down to an in-depth knowledge of cookery. I realised that the fact that Mrs Beeton started out knowing nothing about cookery didnt make her a scabby fraud, just a competent magazine journalist. We have this childlike fantasy that chefs and food writers are working in a cottage industry. But no one seriously thinks Nigella is setting her alarm to soak ingredients for three hours. Of course she employs people to help her. That doesnt make her anything other than a professional modern cook.
How do you account for your fascination with the Victorian era?
My grandparents were born in the 1880s, which was kind of unusual for someone growing up in the sixties and seventies. Whereas my schoolfriends grandfathers fought in the Second World War, mine fought in the First. I had a sense of having a longer cultural memory than most children. Both my grandmothers had governesses and they would tell me stories about the tricks they played on them. It was like living history, that sense that you could touch it. I somehow had a living stake in the things we learnt about at school while, for the other girls, it was the olden days.
Would you like to have lived in the Victorian era?
Yes, as long as I could have chosen the rank into which I was born. I would like to have been an Anglican vicar I would have to have been a man with some financial means, living in a nice country parish. I would like to have been in the intellectual loop, scientifically minded, probably with a good collection of ferns or butterflies. Im absolutely certain that if Id been born Victorian I would actually have been a governess well-educated but not that well-funded. I would have been one of those slightly sulky governesses who wasnt very good at joining in and was always dropping hints that I was a bit more artistic and sensitive than the bluff county squire or rich merchant I was working for.
Do you own any Victorian objects and, if so, which is your favourite?
My grandparents lived in those big, draughty houses where nothing was thrown out. There were big lumber rooms full of Victoriana, which I just loved rummaging through. Ive got a big chest with Cut Flowers written on it, which belonged to my grandfather. He was a farmer and market gardener in mid-Wales. He would pack it with daffodils and send it on the train to Paddington and on to Covent Garden. The chest has holes in it so the flowers could breathe. When I finish writing a book I dont throw away any of the hard copies, so Ive got all my notes from the last twelve years stashed away in that chest. The fact that it never got lost amazes me. I also have a beautiful bedspread, which my great-grandmother, a vicars wife, hand embroidered and hand sewed. She obviously spent long lonely nights making it. Its so intricate. It makes me feel slightly humble because she was educated and she wasnt making it for profit.
Are you domestic?
I absolutely love the idea of domesticity, but I am hopelessly undomesticated, which is one of the reasons I wrote the book. My mother was both very domestic and also worked (as a social worker), which was kind of unusual when I was young. She was a total craft junkie. Even today she buys her own fleeces, dyes them with acorns, twigs and berries, spins them and sells the items for quite a lot of money. I always say: What was the Industrial Revolution for? Its bonkers. I buy mostly organic at Fresh and Wild but, sometimes, if Ive had a bad day writing my book, Ill go and have a McDonalds cheeseburger and chips. I do have a cleaner thank God for two hours a week.
Are you interested in crafts?
Up until the age of 14 I was mad on crafts. I knitted, crocheted, appliquéd, did macramé. I made my own clothes. I was absolutely obsessed. We lived in the deep country and there wasnt much else to do. It wasnt that we were poor, it was just that my parents, who had been children in the War, belonged to that generation of make-do-and-menders who held the vaguely snobbish view that anything available in a shop was slightly common. Then, at 14, I discovered Miss Selfridge and their clingy polyester blouses in swirly colours. From then on I wanted shop bought in all its trailing-thread, gape-seamed glory. These days I buy my clothes from Harvey Nics and Primark, and I no longer spend my evenings sticking seashells onto bits of plywood. I am still fascinated by the idea of craft and domesticity, but my fascination is of the cool, analytical kind.
Have you tried Mrs Beetons recipes?
Yes. Ive got to be honest, I got my mother to help me. They can taste a bit odd, but the puddings are great. Her blancmange, junket and tapioca are great and her rice pudding is gorgeous. I realised that all those junior school puddings are really, really nice when they are done properly.
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Top customer reviews
Ms Hughes does some good detective work on the apparently upright Mrs Beeton's naughtiness in nicking recipes from others.
The book is at once a search for the living, breathing woman behind the myth and an exploration of the mechanisms of an early example of the branding of celebrity.
With a Ph D in nineteenth century History, Kathryn Hughes is well equipped to handle the extensive primary source material competently, and with a deft touch. So committed was she to the project that she remortgaged her flat to buy the Beaton love letters.
Her style makes for easy reading, and despite the length of the book(428 pages of actual text)she kept this reader keen to get back to 'Mrs Beaton'each day.
Biographies frequently end with the death of their subject, but this one continues beyond the death of her husband, and discusses the further history of Mrs Beaton's Book of Household Management.The legacy of Mrs Beaton, the suppression of the actual details of her life so that more books could be created from the same material, and the development of her mantle by her husband's new business partner, and later by Bella's daughter in law, Mrs M Beaton, make a good story too.
I loved this book, and greatly admire the young and resourceful Mrs Beaton.
Thoroughly to be recommended.