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Victorian secrets

Biography of Beeton reveals the unsavory side of the iconic 19th-century household expert

The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton: The First Domestic Goddess
By Kathryn Hughes
Knopf, 480 pp., illustrated, $29.95

The inestimable Isabella Beeton, supreme authority on Victorian housekeeping, was a serial plagiarist. That is, not only did she help herself to generous portions of other writers' work for her massive ``Book of Household Management," but she and her husband, Samuel, also published this purloined material in serialized installments.

Although she urged women to keep their husbands from straying by providing enticing meals in a cozy home, Isabella Beeton was an indifferent cook who did the opposite -- she ensured her own marital togetherness by moving into her husband's office. This method seems to have worked just as well. He was devoted to her, although he did give her a souvenir from his bachelor days, syphilis, and he replaced her personally and professionally within months of her death at the age of 28 from complications after childbirth .

And now for the shocking revelation in Kathryn Hughes's biography ``The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton " : It is that a household manual published in 1861 is still of use, not only to housekeepers, but to sociologists, economists, food analysts , and neo-feminists. Compiled amid the social turmoil that accompanied the Industrial Revolution, Beeton's book contains powerful subtexts about the class system, consumerism, the safety factor in food sources , and the rights and duties of married women. Magazine publishers might also want to study the acuteness with which the Beetons kept their many publications responsive to opposing and shifting public opinion and taste.

The hefty original volume is therefore worth reading. But for those lacking the patience to slog through hundreds of pages of recipes for such dishes as calf's- head soup and dry pigs' cheeks, Hughes has distilled the subtext of the book as well as of the Beetons' and their readers' lives.

Isabella Mayson was the eldest of 21 children in a blended and upwardly mobile family who disappointed her fond parents by falling in love with a headstrong young publisher. They were educating her, in music and foreign languages, to take the next step up to idle mid-Victorian ladyhood. Samuel Beeton came from no better origins than their own, and it did not escape their notice, as it did Isabella's, that he was also a litigious four-flusher headed for bankruptcy.

But Samuel Beeton was also a liberal and daring thinker. He launched a magazine for boys called Boy's Own Journal, with the object of providing wholesome and instructive reading matter for the young. He slipped in editorials favoring married women's property rights, liberal divorce laws , and severe punishments for wife beaters, along with the patterns and household hints in his genteel Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine.

And he was sincere in his distaste for the lovesick Isabella's suggestion that as her husband, he should ``have the entire management of me." Instead, he confirmed her family's worst fears by turning her into a journalist and a fully equal partner in his publishing company , S. O. Beeton. They were particularly outraged that even as she lay dying, he was begging for her business advice.

As his later career demonstrated, he was badly in need of such assistance. His recklessness and chicanery, probably exacerbated by his syphilis, were to cost him his book and magazine empire, including the magazine Queen, which he founded and which is still published, and his wife's book, which became a bestseller after her death, and from which numerous spinoffs continue to come out under her name.

Neither Samuel nor Isabella Beeton worried much about journalistic standards. Even for their time, when plagiary was so common that some of the authors who complained about Isabella Beeton's plunderings had themselves stolen from earlier authors, they were blatant. After Hughes diligently identified involuntary contributions to the household book, there was not much left.

What both Beetons did have was a genius for understanding the complicated zeitgeist of their times and the way to use this to reach different readers. It was an age of belief that science could be applied to improve daily life and of yearning for the simple old ways of doing things. Women were expected to be ornamental and wanted to feel useful. Servants and their employers had been uprooted from their customary surroundings and were uncertain about what they needed to do. Dramatic financial reversals created the necessity of severe economy in some and the desire for unaccustomed display in others. A plethora of manufactured goods created the notion that how one exercised taste in selecting them determined one's social status.

It was, as Hughes points out, an age more like our own than the succeeding Edwardian era, which rejected and ridiculed Victorianism. For that matter, it was more like ours than the era of domestic bliss that Victorians pretended it to be.

What Isabella Beeton contributed to her thumping pastiche was not the voice of experience -- she was in her early 20s when she compiled it -- but the voice of reassurance: Running a household on modern and ``scientific" (meaning efficient) principles as if it were a factory will make it homey. Taking charge of it like a captain of industry is alluringly feminine. Doing so requires the determination and responsibility of men's work, but anyone can do it and here are the instructions. It is foolish and vulgar to show off, but here is how the rich give fancy dinners and direct their many servants.

It was, and continues to be, an irresistible formula.

Judith Martin is the author of the syndicated ``Miss Manners" columns and several books, including ``Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior: Freshly Updated."

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