Happy Birthday Isabella Beeton, best known as Mrs. Beeton, the Victorian Domestic Goddess. Her cookbook Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management published in 1861 when she was only 23, was an instant success. It sold a whopping 2 million copies in 1868.
March 12 marks her birthday. Had she lived in biblical times, Bella would have been a mere child compared to Adam who lived a total of 930 years (Genesis 5:5). As it was she died at age 28 of complications from childbirth. Speaking of which, we can thank Eve for labour pains as punishment for eating the apple from the forbidden tree: “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe” (Genesis 3:16).
Mrs. Beeton’s appeal has endured for well over a hundred years, most recently achieving renewed celebrity through her influence on Downton Abbey. Series creator Julian Fellowes used her work to stage the show’s dinner scenes, and producers used recipes from her famed cookbook. Other cooks around the world continue to be inspired by her work: my other tribute to Mrs. Beeton and her recipes are sprinkled throughout this site. I own Mrs. Beeton How to Cook which is a wonderful book, the joy of which is that Gerald Baker has painstakingly converted the recipes for easier use.
Surprise! Mrs. Beeton didn’t cook
The volume of work she produced at such a young age is impressive. As eldest of 21 children, it would explain where she may have picked up some tips. She married a publisher which explains how she may have been published. But the big surprise about Mrs. Beeton was that her persona was manufactured to help sales. She didn’t cook, and was a small slip of a woman who preferred working at her husband’s publishing house than “keeping house”. She published under the name “Mrs. Beeton” to give her credibility. The facade was maintained after her death, as her publishers continued producing material under her name.
Also known as Mrs. Beeton’s Cookbook, the book contains 1,112 pages, and over 900 recipes illustrated with coloured engravings. As an editor who never claimed to have original content, Mrs. Beeton saw the need for providing a guide to Victorian women on how to run a household with fashion tips, child care and animal husbandry advice, as well as the hiring servants. What she lacked in originality she made up for in innovation. She was the first to organize recipes as we see them today: listing ingredients at the beginning of the recipe and to indicate the length of time to cook dishes. She even listed the costs, and what seasons to best enjoy the dishes, promoting the novel idea of buying local and in season.
Celebrating The Life of Mrs. Beeton
While her work speaks for itself as the legacy she left behind, there is some biographical materials available to learn more about her.
- Historian Kathryn Hughes, mortgaged her home to buy Mrs. Beeton’s personal papers, enabling her to write the definitive biography: The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton.
- BBC produced a one hour show called The Marvellous Mrs Beeton with Sophie Dahl, an English author and former fashion model.
- PBS Masterpiece produced a documentary about her in 2006 titled The Secret Life of Mrs. Beeton. There is an interesting connection to Downton Abbey. Jim Carter who plays Mr. Carson, portrays Mrs. Beeton’s stepfather.
Wellesley Fudge Cupcakes
What would a birthday celebration be without cupcakes? A double celebration, my father also celebrates his birthday on this day.
Bella would have known these as “fairy cakes”, but I believe that Brits now also call these lovely little cakes by the American name “cupcake”. As a modern woman, I thought she might appreciate this recipe from Gourmet magazine, adapted from a rich chocolate cake first served in the late 1890s at the Wellesley Tea Room, a genteel establishment catering to students at the well-known Massachusetts women’s college.
So tip your cup and lift up your cupcake, scone or biscuit today and say “Happy Birthday, Mrs. Beeton, your legacy lives on with us”.
The Wellesley Fudge Cake Recipe Makes Great Cupcakes
- 4 ounces unsweetened chocolate
- 1/2 cup hot water
- 1 3/4 cups brown sugar
- 1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 tsp. baking soda
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter softened
- 3 large eggs
- 3/4 cup milk
- 1 tsp. vanilla
- Preheat oven to 350F. and prepare two 9-inch layer pans or 2 12-cup cupcake tray. Set a metal bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water melt the chocolate with the water, stirring until the mixture is smooth and remove the bowl from the heat.
- Mix flour, soda and salt in a bowl.
- Cream butter. Gradually beat in brown sugar and continue beating until light and fluffy.
- Add eggs, one at a time, beating thoroughly after each. Alternately add flour mixture, milk and water, beating after each addition until smooth. Blend in vanilla and melted chocolate mixture.
- Pour into your pans. Bake at 350°F for 30 to 35 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted in centers comes out clean.
- Cool in pans 10 minutes. Remove from pans and finish cooling on racks. Spread frosting between layers and over top and sides or frost your cupcakes. Garnish with chopped nuts, if desired.
Delicous Chocolate Fudge Icing
- 4 ounces unsweetened chocolate chopped
- 2 tbsp. unsalted butter
- 4 cups icing sugar
- 1/2 cup milk
- 1 dash salt
- 1 tsp. vanilla extract
- Melt chocolate with butter over very low heat, stirring constantly until smooth. Remove from heat.
- Combine sugar, salt, milk and vanilla. Add chocolate, blending well. If necessary, let stand until it sets to spreading consistency, stirring occasionally.
- Spread quickly, adding a small amount of additional milk if frosting thickens.
- Makes about 2 1/2 cups, or enough to cover tops and sides of two 8 or 9-inch layers, the top and sides of one 9-inch square or 13 x 9-inch cake, or the tops of 24 cupcakes.