I’ve just woken up to the fact that it’s World Book Day, and, when I was wondering what to write about, it suddenly occurred to me that the exhibition I visited yesterday would be absolutely perfect for today’s post.
I went to a small exhibition at London’s Guildhall Library (of which, incidentally, I am a huge fan) about Mrs Beeton and her contemporaries. While there was a lot of useful information about other cooks, most notably Eliza Acton and Alexis Soyer, the main focus was Beeton’s Book of Household Management, first published in 1861 … and, such has been its success that it has never been out of print since.
In the twentieth century, numerous books were published which claimed to endorse Mrs Beeton’s approach, and the publishers Ward and Lock carefully removed any reference to the “late Mrs Beeton” so that readers could believe that she was still alive and had been involved in these new publications. And, as the exhibition curators point out, it could well be that, without this canny marketing ploy, the name of Mrs Beeton would not have lived on into the twenty first century.
Two other interesting facts I learnt were:
1) Mrs Beeton was born only 100 yards away from the Guildhall exhibition
2) It was Eliza Acton, not Mrs Beeton, who first invented today’s practice of listing the ingredients at the top of a recipe.
I’m not much of a cook myself and have just retrieved some sausages from the freezer for tonight’s supper. I don’t know whether or not Mrs Beeton would have approved, but maybe she would have moved with the times and understood that easy meals like this are part and parcel of keeping the show on the road these days – and her book was about household management, after all, not just how to make game pies and jellies. My heroine Julie is a little more domesticated than me, but even she has been known to resort to the freezer in times of stress.
One final crumb of comfort: Mrs Beeton owes her survival to a firm of clever publishers, but we shouldn’t have to worry about our books disappearing for ever as technology should ensure that ebooks are always available. It’s just making sure that our readers know how to find them…
Happy World Book Day!
Mrs Beeton’s grave, West Norwood Cemetery
Cardboard cutout of one of Mrs B’s wonderful puddings!