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"This magazine is flush with tight smart writing."
Washington Post

Lucy Lethbridge
The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton
By Kathryn Hughes (Fourth Estate 485pp £20)

It was Elizabeth David who first pointed out that Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management, that mid-nineteenth-century volume which more than any other had come to represent the values of domestic order and nourishment, was a collection of borrowings from another, earlier, real cook: Eliza Acton. In fact, Isabella Beeton had shamelessly snipped, clipped, cut and lifted not only from Acton but also from Alexis Soyer, Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, Antonin Carême and many others. All it took was some tweaking and rearranging of the originals and a journalist in her mid-twenties could convey in print the brisk yet kindly voice of a matronly, middle-aged woman who ranged over her subjects with the authority that came from years of experience. Kathryn Hughes writes sternly: 'Depending on your own intellectual confidence, the end result was either terribly clever or the sort of thing constructed by a particularly conscientious schoolgirl.'

But revelations of plagiarism, as well as the more serious charge that The Book of Household Management condemned English cooking for generations to be characterised by over-boiled vegetables and tapioca puddings, have not dented the brand allure of Mrs Beeton. In this splendid book, a biography which brings alive the real Isabella Beeton's active, energetic world, as well as unpicking the myth of her public persona, Hughes tells us that Ginsters, the meat pie manufacturers, in 1995 spent £1 million on acquiring the right to use the words 'Mrs Beeton' on their products. Like 'farm-fresh' or 'home-made', the label of 'Mrs Beeton' can still recall that imagined domestic Eden when real food was lovingly prepared in real kitchens.

And Hughes is surely right that when it came to Mrs Beeton's mid-nineteenth-century readers, confidence was what they were looking for. In a society changed radically and fast by railways and industry, where fortunes in the expanding middle class rose and fell with alarming speed, and where ancient class distinctions were crumbling, or at least shifting, what the average housewife wanted above all was a guide to navigating these choppy waters of social change and insecurity. Hughes takes the excellent step of inventing a typical 'reader', imagined down to the last detail. Her name is Mary Price and she is a young wife living in a new house in the Pooterish regions of Holloway. Her family has gone up in the world, and while her mother learned to cook from her mother, Mary has had a smattering of light education - some drawing, a bit of French - and now, with no knowledge of cooking, finds herself 'managing' a cook who despises her and a budget that will barely stretch to the necessary appurtenances of gentility. What she finds in Mrs Beeton's book, and in her columns in The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine, is reassuring, even motherly, advice on pressing issues of thrift, kitchen management and social propriety: what is the correct fare for a dinner party of your husband's colleagues, for example, or how to make the most of leftovers.

The creation of Mrs Beeton was a joint effort. It was Isabella's husband Sam Beeton - political radical, professional chancer, brilliant conversationalist and unflaggingly energetic publisher - who came up with The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine. With an eye to the socially mobile, lower middle classes (from which both he and Isabella came), Sam Beeton devised magazines that catered for a newly educated readership who wanted to know about things: arcane African rituals; the habits of the quadruped; when to leave a visiting card; how to make a mock turtle soup. The early magazines were a template for women's magazines today: a problem page (most letters concerning, then as now, what Hughes politely calls 'the riddle that is man'), a cookery column, some fashion tips, and a short story in which a heroine whose poverty is outshone by her virtue wins the heart of a wealthy aristocrat.

Hughes depicts the worlds of the Beetons with astonishing vividness and colour. And there were so many worlds, all colliding and jostling one another with characteristic nineteenth-century mercantile energy. Sam was the son of a Cheapside publican and Isabella the daughter of a successful cloth dealer. Both families demonstrated what may be to many modern readers the extraordinary and surprising social fluidity of their times. Isabella's mother was the grand-daughter of domestic servants and her parents ran a livery stable; her second husband, of equally modest origins, ended up a rich man, his fortune made in the production of race cards for the Epsom race course. Respectable Henry Dorling was the most powerful man in Epsom and Isabella was raised in a household of twenty-one children - seventeen of whom were her mother's. The children were sent to play and even sleep in Epsom's vast Grandstand overlooking the racecourse, where Dickens once peeped into the kitchens and observed the food being prepared for Derby Day: 'Twenty routs of beef; four hundred lobsters; one hundred and fifty tongues; twenty fillets of veal; one hundred sirloins of beef; five hundred spring chickens; three hundred and fifty pigeon pies; a countless number of quartern loaves, and an incredible quantity of hams have to be cut up into sandwiches; eight hundred eggs have got to be boiled for pigeon-pies and salads.'

Hughes's impressive research, her eye for detail, her dauntless forages down fascinating and unlikely alleyways, depict Isabella Beeton's 'long times', caught between rural nostalgia and racing urban progress, with subtlety and precision. If Isabella herself, a hard-working career woman who died of peritonitis at the age of twenty-eight, remains a somewhat shadowy figure, she receives definition from the surrounding colour and movement of her world. Hughes has a slightly bristling tendency to spot class slights in a society that she otherwise presents as being, despite its concern to maintain the external appearances of social order, very open to change. And though it makes an entertaining interlude, I'm not convinced one can really read a subtext about imperial values into Mrs Beeton's instructions for carving a turkey.

This is an accomplished and hugely readable book. Much more than a biography, it is like a version in prose of a magnificent Victorian narrative painting, packed full of the strange, swarming richness of life as well as the codes, rules and orders that attempted to contain it.