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Mrs Beeton was the Delia Smith of her day. Vastly popular in its time, her great Book of Household Management is scarcely read nowadays in its original form (no offence, Delia). This is a pity, since as a result a distorted picture of the author and her work persists, as an oppressive Victorian materfamilias with a decidedly bossy attitude and a tendency to boil vegetables to a grey pulp. The truth, as Nicola Humble demonstrates in her abridgement of the work for the Oxford press, is quite different. Isabella Beeton was in many ways an unusual person. One of 21 children, she lived for part of her childhood in the grandstand at Epsom racecourse, married Sam Beeton, an ambitious young publisher, worked hard as a journalist and translator, and died of puerperal fever (not, sadly, such an unusual fate in her time) at the age of 28. The Book of Household Management grew out of her own sense, as a new bride, of the lack of such a work of instruction and guidance for young women faced with the daunting business of running a home. It is largely a compilation rather than an original work. Its originality lies in its organisation and purpose; its quality arises from the clarity and decisiveness of Beeton's writing. Behind the period details, there is a wealth of common sense.

Nicola Humble provides a scholarly introduction and notes. Gesturing towards academic fashions, she describes the many facets of the book in terms of modes of discourse--which is perhaps a highfalutin way of pointing out the remarkable range of subject matter and the variety of Beeton's sources. The notes entertainingly combine theoretical commentary with often deadpan remarks on the recipes ("Rock biscuits: so-called for their appearance, not their texture"). The recipes themselves are the principal victims of the abridgement, for Nicola Humble's main aim is to present the book as a kind of exhaustive self-portrait of the expanding and aspirational Victorian middle classes. The representative selection that remains, however, are enough to make this a welcome reissue of a fascinating and important book. --Robin Davidson

The Book of Household Management (by Mrs Mary Beeton )
Mrs Mary Beeton (Author)
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Print List Price: £22.99
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Reviews from Amazon:

Sold out in Central London book shops within weeks (Red, August 2000 )