Mrs Beeton (1836 – 1865)
Isabella Mayson was born on March 14, 1836, in London and died on February 6, 1865, aged 28. This may surprise some people who envisage a matronly Fanny Craddock figure dispensing advice about home cooking and etiquette at table. Isabella was a Victorian forerunner of the entrepreneurial, successful, trendy young woman about town. In this she was ahead of her time.
Her famous book Beeton’s Book of Household Management was published in 1861 when she was just 25 years old. It is in fact a compilation of recipes from other sources with a few of her own thrown in. 60,000 copies were sold during the first year rising to 2,000,000 by the second year. What was essentially a cookery book also included sections on home management and looking after your servants. The book was very well-reviewed and received. She was the Mary Berry of her day.
Isabella Mayson lived in Epsom when her mother remarried. She learned cooking from family friends, in fact could turn her hand to anything and was an accomplished pianist, a skill she learned in Heidelburg.
She met Sam Beeton, a keen young journalist and publisher who lived in London. They would meet, possibly for the sake of privacy, at Anerley Bridge Station on her way up from Epsom. ‘Anerley Bridge at 1.30 by the same train I came up on before,’ wrote Isabella to Sam. This is the Penge connection: a series of romantic trysts before marriage at what became known as Anerley Station. For all we know they may have gone for a cuppa in Anerley Tea Gardens down near Ridsdale Road or popped up to the Crystal Palace. Isabella and Sam developed their love affair through extensive correspondence in which she sometimes signed herself off as ‘Fatty’.
Isabella and Sam got married in 1856 and she was soon employed as editor and copy writer for her husband’s business. Soon they had the idea for a comprehensive and accessible cookery book, noting that such books were popular on the market.
Isabella’s life was not all publishing success though: there were four children, two of whom died young. There were multiple unexplained miscarriages. Her death has been attributed to her doctor not washing his hands after the birth of her first child, which led to her puerperal fever. Recent research, however, has conjectured that Sam suffered from siphylis contracted in early youth while on the European grand tour. This he passed on to his wife.
Many books have been written about Isabella Beeton. A radio play was broadcast as early as 1934 with Joyce Carey as Isabella. A BBC television film was made in 2006. All it needs now is a Hollywood romcom, Recipe for Love, perhaps, starring a transatlantic Sarah Jessica Parker as Isabella and Matthew McConaughey as Sam.
Mrs Beeton’s story is a story of hope, vision and determination undercut by unfortunate and unpredictable life circumstances. That is what makes the Penge connection so poignant.
For further reading:
Mrs Beeton and her Husband, Nancy Spain ( London: Collins, 1948)
The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton, Kathryn Hughes ( London: Fourth Estate, 2005)
You may also like to see ‘The Marvellous Mrs Beeton’:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZPHeaPrfKo8 (This video opens in a new tab and embedding has been disabled)