The real Mrs Beeton – plus her trifle recipe

The Victorian cookery writer is the subject of Sophie Dahl's BBC2 documentary - but who was she?

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Most of us think of Mrs Beeton as being halfway to Mrs Bridges, the doughty, elderly cook who reigned over the kitchen in Upstairs, Downstairs. There’s something about the sheer heft of her Book of Household Management – more than 1,000 pages of densely printed recipes and household tips – that means you can’t help assuming that its author had spent a long lifetime collecting a veritable larder of domestic know-how.

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In fact, Mrs Beeton – whose story is told by Sophie Dahl this week on BBC2 – was 21 and newly married when she sat down to write her magnum opus. The woman whose name has become synonymous with well-seasoned domestic authority actually “borrowed” the vast majority of the 2,000 recipes in her book from earlier domestic manuals.

And, saddest of all, Mrs Beeton died aged just 28, worn out by repeated miscarriages, over-work, and a husband who may have passed on syphilis to his wife and was never more than one step ahead of the bailiffs.

She was born Isabella Mayson in 1836. Four years later her father died and her mother went on to remarry the Clerk of the Epsom race course. Isabella became the eldest girl in a step-family with 21 children, which meant she was inevitably shunted into the job of unofficial nursemaid. It was partly to escape this bleak future that she became engaged to Sam Beeton, a handsome young publisher from Cheapside in London.

Following a huge wedding reception, in 1856 Isabella and Sam moved into a new semi-detached home on the outskirts of London. From here Sam commuted every day into the City to edit The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, the first mass-market women’s monthly magazine. With its breezy tone, “agony uncle” page and fashion tips, the magazine filled a huge void in the reading lives of women across the country.

Domestic life chez Beeton did not go quite so smoothly. Nine months after her wedding Isabella gave birth to her first baby, a son, who died just three months later. It was to distract her that Sam suggested that she contribute a recipe column to his magazine. Her first attempt was a flop: when giving her recipe for Victoria Sponge she forgot to mention (or perhaps didn’t know) that you needed eggs. A shamefaced apology appeared in the next issue.

Following this shaky beginning, Mrs Beeton’s cookery column became highly popular. Sam and Isabella collected all the recipes together, adding sections on general household management, and turned the whole thing into a comprehensive encyclopaedia. The Book of Household Management would be issued in 24 monthly parts, each costing 6d. At the end of two years it would be published as a single volume.

Sadly, Isabella didn’t live long enough to see her book become a success. In February 1865 she died after giving birth to her fourth son. Her sudden death, though, left Sam with a marketing problem. “Mrs Beeton” was becoming such a brand name that having to admit she was dead could seriously affect his most valuable piece of intellectual property. He decided to keep the news of Isabella’s death quiet. 

From now on he, together with his married mistress Myra Browne, updated the text of the book while allowing readers to believe that Mrs Beeton was alive and busy in her kitchen. In time, editing duties were taken over by a team of anonymous domestic science writers.

The Book of Household Management went from strength to strength, right into the middle of the 20th century. Most readers never bothered to think that, if Mrs Beeton really was responsible for these updated versions of her classic text, she would be at least 140 years old. Sam had stumbled on the recipe for creating an iconic household brand. “Mrs Beeton” was always the same – her name proudly on the front page of The Book of Household Management – yet subtly tweaked so that what she said, as well as how she said it, appeared to be always bang up to date.

Kathryn Hughes is the author of The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton


Mrs Beeton’s Trifle

For the whip:
1 pint of cream
3oz sugar
2 egg whites
small glass sherry

For the trifle:
1 pint custard
6 small sponge cakes
12 macaroons
2 dozen ratafias
2oz sweet almonds
lemon rind
layer of jam
1/2 pint sherry
6 tbsp brandy

(Sufficient for 1 trifle)

1. The whip to lay over the top of the trifle should be made the day before it is required for the table, as the flavour is better and it is much more solid than when prepared the same day. Put into a large bowl the pounded sugar, the whites of the eggs, which should be beaten to a stiff froth, a glass of sherry or sweet wine, and the cream.

2. Whisk these ingredients well in a cool place, and take off the froth with a skimmer as fast as it rises, and put it on a sieve to drain; continue the whisking till there is sufficient of the whip, which must be put away in a cool place to drain.

3. The next day, place the sponge cakes, macaroons and ratafias at the bottom of a trifle dish; pour over them 1/2 pint of sherry or sweet wine, mixed with 6 tablespoons of brandy, and should this proportion of wine not be found quite sufficient, add a little more, as the cakes should be well soaked. Over the cakes put the grated lemon rind, the sweet almonds, blanched and cut into strips, and a layer of raspberry or strawberry jam.

4. Make a good custard using 8 eggs to the pint of milk, and let this cool a little; then pour it over the cakes etc. The whip being made the day previously, and the trifle prepared, there remains nothing to do now but heap the whip lightly over the top: this should stand as high as possible, and it may be garnished with strips of bright currant jelly, crystallised sweetmeats, or flowers; the small coloured comfits are sometimes used for the purpose of garnishing a trifle, but they are now considered rather old-fashioned.

Average cost, with cream at 1s. per pint, 5s. 6d. Seasonable at any time.

Recipe taken from Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, first published in 1861.

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This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 20 September 2011.