The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton by Kathryn Hughes - review by Lucy Lethbridge

Lucy Lethbridge

Still Cooking Up A Storm

The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton

By

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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

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