Like reading Thackeray edited by Elmore Leonard

Two Victorian Domestic Goddesses

The Victorian era saw the expansion of the British Empire, the development of industry and an increase in population. There were the rich and the desperately poor – lots of them, crowded into the cities – but there was a growing middle class. They had much to be thankful for and much to enjoy with the technological advances in every sphere of life. It was, of course, a male dominated society and the woman had her defined place in that society, though there were more than a few brave women who would not be constrained by convention. The majority however, conformed. One area where the woman of the household reigned supreme was the kitchen and she was expected to run this with skill, knowledge and a careful eye on the cost. A husband would consider himself well blessed if his wife could produce excellent food regularly, the servants were clean, punctual and efficient, and the atmosphere was harmonious, ordered and tranquil. Daughters learnt from their mothers, but now there were weekly and monthly women’s magazines bringing the latest in fashion and new ideas, as well as preserving valued traditions in what were correct and good manners. Two accomplished and enterprising women went a stage further and wrote books. The first on the scene was Eliza Acton with her cookery book, and this was followed some ten years later by Mrs Beeton with her book which embraced more than just cooking, but the whole of household management. It became a legend.

Eliza Acton

Elizabeth ‘Eliza’ Acton (1799 – 1859) was born in Battle, Sussex, the eldest of the five children of Elizabeth and John Acton, a brewer. Her health was always described as ‘delicate’ but in her early 20’s she went to France and became engaged to a French officer, but did not marry him. She did, however, have a niece, of whom she was particularly fond who was rumoured to be her illegitimate daughter from that liaison. She maintained her own household in Hampstead and in 1825 had a book of poems published. Here is a sample:

I am so weary. Love! – a chain
Whose Every link is formed of pain,
Clings round me like a serpent coil
Whose gaspings crush its folded spoil.

To put it politely, it did not sell well, but she persevered and in 1841, offered the publisher Thomas Longman a further collections of her verse. If the story is to be believed, he replied,

“ My dear madam, it is no good bringing me poetry. Bring me a cookery book and we might come to terms.”

Four years later, he published her Modern Cookery, or to give it its full title:

Modern Cookery for Private Families Reduced to a System of Easy Practice in a Series of Carefully Tested Receipts in which the Principles of Baron Liebig and other eminent writers have been as much as possible applied and explained by Eliza Acton.

In 1855 she issued a second edition. It ran to over 600 pages and she claimed to have cooked almost every recipe in it (note she calls them ‘receipts’) and those she has borrowed, she gives due acknowledgement. The one recipe that I have chosen is for that much loved and very British preserve, marmalade, which is essentially an orange jam.

Genuine Scotch Marmalade

“Take some bitter oranges, and double their weight of sugar; cut the rind of the fruit into quarters and peel it off, and if the marmalade be not wanted very thick, take off some of the spongy white skin inside the rind. Cut the chips as thin as possible, and about half an inch long, and divide the pulp into small bits, removing carefully the seeds, which may be steeped in part of the water that is to make the marmalade, and which must be in the proportion of a quart to a pound of fruit. Put the chips and the pulp into a deep earthen dish, and pour the water boiling over them; let them remain for twelve to fourteen hours, and then turn the whole into the preserving pan, and boil it until the chips are perfectly tender. When they are so, add by degrees the sugar (which should be previously pounded), and boil it until it jellies. The water in which the seeds have been steeped, and which must be taken from the quantity apportioned to the whole of the preserve, should be poured into a hair-sieve, and the seeds well worked in it with the back of a spoon; a strong clear jelly will be obtained by this means, which must be washed off them by pouring their own liquor through the sieve in small portions over them. This must be added to the fruit when it is first set on the fire.”

Oranges, 3 lbs; water, 3 quarts; sugar 6 lbs.

Proper English marmalade uses Seville oranges which give it a dark colour and a slightly bitter taste, but additions or substitutions can be made with other fruit such as ordinary oranges, grapefruit, gooseberries and lime. Toast and marmalade is an essential part of the traditional English breakfast!

Isabella Mary Beeton

Isabella Mary Beeton (née Mayson 1836 - 1865) was born in Cheapside, London. Her father died when she was young and her mother married again, to Henry Dorling, a widower with four children of his own. He was clerk of the Epsom Race Course and the family lived at Epsom. She went to school in Heidelberg, Germany, where she became quite an accomplished pianist.

In 1856 she married Samuel Beeton, a publisher of books and popular magazines and she began to write articles on cookery and household management for her husband’s publications. Between 1859 and 1861 she wrote a monthly supplement to The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine and these were later published as a single volume which became popularly known as Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. But let us see its full title as this shows what an extensive and ambitious tome it was:

The Book of Household Management Comprising information for the Mistress, Housekeeper, Cook, Kitchen-Maid, Butler, Footman, Coachman, Valet, Upper and Under House-Maids, Lady’s-Maid, Maid-of-all-Work, Laundry-Maid, Nurse and Nurse-Maid, Monthly Wet and Sick Nurses, etc. etc. – also Sanitary, Medical & Legal Memoranda; with a History of the Origin, Properties, and Uses of all Things Connected with the Home Life and Comfort.

Its 1,112 pages covered everything that an upwardly mobile and aspirant Victorian housewife should know about running a household. There were over 900 recipes, many of them illustrated with coloured engravings, and it showed the recipes in a format that is still used today. It was claimed that all the recipes were original but that is unlikely. Her husband’s magazine invited readers to submit recipes and many of them seem to have found their way into her book. Still, she gave them her ‘imprimatur’ and did a monumental task of compiling. There does not seem to be an area of household management that she did not cover. One of the more charming and forgotten sections is the final chapter, on table decorations – a sort of origami for table napkins (not serviettes, please!) where she describes how to fold napkins into all sorts of appealing shapes, such as ‘the mitre’, ‘the cockscomb’, fleur-de-lis variations, ‘the rose and star’ and others.

Her book was a phenomenal success and became the trusted companion of many a housewife, for about half a century. She certainly eclipsed her predecessor, Eliza Acton – and probably borrowed a few recipes from her as well! And even men found praise for her! Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in his study of married life entitled ‘A Duet, with an Occasional Chorus’, makes his heroine say, “Mrs. Beeton must have been the finest housekeeper in the world. Therefore Mr. Beeton must have been the happiest and most comfortable man”; and his hero concludes that Mrs. Beeton’s book ‘has more wisdom to the square inch than any work of man!’ (and it contains 80,000 square inches!).

Not many menus these days will include such dishes as ‘jugged kangaroo’ or ‘turtle soup’ so let’s go for something more mundane and seasonal:

Christmas Pudding Rich


½ lb beef suet
2 oz flour
½ lb raisins
¼ lb mixed peel
½ a grated nutmeg
½ oz mixed spice
½ oz ground cinnamon
1 gill milk
1 wineglass full of rum or brandy (optional)
½ lb breadcrumbs
½ lb sultanas
½ lb currants
1 lemon
2 oz desiccated coconut or shredded almonds
4 eggs
1 pinch of salt.


Skin the suet and chop it finely. Clean the fruit, stone the raisins, finely shred the mixed peel; peel and chop the lemon-rind. Put all the dry ingredients in a basin and mix well. Add the milk, stir in the eggs one at a time, add the rum or brandy and the strained juices of the lemon. Work the whole thoroughly for some minutes, so that the ingredients are well blended. Put the mixture in a well-greased basin or a greased or floured pudding cloth.


Boil for about 4 hours or steam for at least 5 hours. Sufficient for 8-9 persons.