From the preface by Nicola Humble---
The nineteenth century saw a dramatic increase in the number of manuals of cookery and household management published in Britain, with such books becoming a significant part of the publishing industry, the mainstay of many an entrepreneurial publisher’s list. The most famous is Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861), which sold more than 60,000 copies in its first year of publication and nearly two million by 1868, but many other such manuals appeared in this century, particularly in the period from the 1840s to the 1880s. Works such as Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families (1845) (from which Isabella Beeton copied widely and unashamedly), Alexis Soyer’s The Modern Housewife (1849), and Henry Southgate’s Things a Lady Would Like to Know (1874). A new market for such books existed because of the extreme and all-embracing social changes that took place during these decades. More and more of the population moved into large towns or to the rapidly growing suburbs on their outskirts. They lost touch with the rural economy with its virtuous circle of food production and consumption and were faced with a vast and increasing array of commercial food products, many imported from the colonies. The new rising middle class, to whom most of these publications were addressed, lived very different lives from their parents and grandparents, in tall narrow townhouses, where the industrial soot and grime necessitated extra cleaning, where food of unknown origin was supplied by numerous, potentially unreliable tradespeople, and where neighbours were strangers to each other unless an elaborate system of calls was initiated. Husbands travelled into the centre of London and other large cities to work and took their midday and often their evening meal in town, in the chop-houses that were growing up to service this new commuter class. Women in the mid-century needed advice on how to manage every detail of their homes and lives because it was all so unfamiliar, and the well-meaning guidance of the past simply did not apply any more. The new household manuals speak to that anxiety, reassuring and explaining, offering new systems and strategies, and dealing with the all-important task of managing servants. The middle class tripled in size between 1851 and 1871 and the vast majority of these newly middle-class people were at the very lowest end of the middle class, living on annual household incomes of between £100 and £300. They were almost certainly the first generation of their families to have employed servants, and were extremely anxious about the process. One of the main functions of the household manual was to simplify and demystify this new role.
Another major function of the household manual was also intimately connected to class: that of consolidating and maintaining the family’s social position. It was very clear to all mid-Victorians that economic and social status could ‘turn on a sixpence’: that a calamitous fall in social status was as likely as a miraculous rise. Household manuals and cookbooks for the middle classes devote a considerable amount of space to the activity of entertaining, which was seen as a crucial element in advancing both the husband’s career and the social status of the family. A significant proportion of the household’s monthly income would be devoted to this activity, and enormous anxiety is felt, not unreasonably, about getting it right. It is for this reason that there are so many scenes of disastrous dinner parties in Victorian novels – not because the dinner party was a commonplace event, but precisely because it was new and awkward and desperately important – a key social ritual for which the rules were still evolving. Household manuals seek to lay down those rules, to determine the right way of doing it, and to remove some of the anxiety from the proceedings (though the very detailed instructions seem as likely to have had the opposite effect).
The household manuals and cook books of the nineteenth century are unlike their modern equivalents in their inclusivity. They are more like bibles than coffee-table books in that each aims to cover every possible eventuality: every household query, every possible dish. Their publishers could not have foreseen the modern market in which consumers buy multitudes of cook books and hardly cook from them at all. The Victorian household was assumed to need only one household manual: and each manual aimed to be the one that they needed. This accounts for two elements we find in these books: both the encyclopaedic impulse that leads many of them to include every possible topic, however vaguely related to their central concerns, and the impulse that leads them to compete with their earlier rivals by incorporation, lifting their recipes and much of their material wholesale. This procedure – to us simply naked plagiarism – is complained of by Eliza Acton in her preface to Modern Cookery, but such complaints were clearly not taken seriously, and for the next decades writers and publishers happily borrow from each other with seeming impunity. Indeed, the authorship of these manuals is much less clear cut than we might expect. Many are put together as ‘packages’ by publishers, pulling together the work of a number of contributors, and many – including Beeton’s book – are derived from material first published in periodicals, with recipes often collected from readers’ contributions. The Practical Housewife (1855), published by Ward, Lock (who were later to amass a considerable fortune when they bought the rights to Household Management from a grieving Sam Beeton after his wife’s premature death), is ‘written’ by the unnamed editors of The Family Friend periodical and is declared on its title page to be ‘the result of hundreds of valued contributions accumulated and approved during the last seven years’. Regardless if written by one author or many, the voice of these books is broadly similar: they aim for a matronly authority, a measured, experienced domestic wisdom which is often dramatically at odds with the real lives of the actual authors. There is a key paradox in the fact that these texts, which so firmly establish the notion of domestic labour as appropriate and fulfilling work for women are written mostly by women who lived very different lives, working as journalists and editors, often unmarried, and rarely possessed of the wealth of domestic experience their books imply.
This disparity points to a fact that we must always bear in mind when reading cookbooks and household manuals: that they are texts, constructed discourses, not clear windows onto the households of the past. These books cannot be used as straightforward guides to the diet or social and domestic practices of nineteenth century Britain. They are not descriptions of living practices, rather, they are interventions, attempts to alter domestic practices, to lay down new rules, to offer a wealth of new dishes. We might note, for example, just how many English cookbooks down the centuries begin their chapter on soup with a description of the highly superior soup-making culture of the French and a suggestion that the British should imitate their example: this is not a reflection of current practice, it is an attempt to get readers to change their domestic habits: to do better. We cannot know if many people followed the advice or cooked the recipes in these books, though it is my contention that people actually cook far fewer recipes than we would expect from cook books. So why and how should we read these texts, and what can they tell us? I think that they tell us a great deal about the fears and fantasies of their readers. As a highly market-led form, these books are very responsive to the immediate needs of their readers, and often reflect their concerns in a very naked form. The snobberies and social tensions, the fears (of adulterated foods, of deceitful shop-keepers, of dishonest or vicious servants) and the dearly-held ambitions of the mid-Victorians speak to us very directly from the pages of these books. The tension between their nascent religious faith and the rapid, contradictory advance of science; their obsessive interest in and respect for history; the growing desire of women to work, to be educated, to hold a larger place in the world; the intensely contradictory feelings – torn between fear and pity – of the middle classes for the poor: all of Victorian culture is here, buried amid the recipes and the advice.