My Year with Mrs. Beeton – Part 2

Let’s begin the journey into the domestic sphere as seen through the eyes of Isabella Beeton at the beginning – Chapter 1 – The Mistress. This daunting book of household advice is not simply a cookbook but also a book advising women who aspired to running an efficient household establishment. Clearly, Mrs. Beeton also took this mission to heart as the book is more than 2000 pages!

It is interesting that this book essentially starts as a self-help manual with Mrs. Beeton providing advice on how to be a good home manager. So of course, it is equally entertaining to consider how we might measure up to these early 20th century standards of decorum!

Mrs. Beeton starts by stating that: “The functions of the Mistress of a House resemble those of the general of an army or the manager of a great business concern. Her spirit will be seen in the whole establishment and if she performs her duties well and intelligently, her domestics will usually follow in her path.”

While most of us can’t speak for our “domestics”, I think anyone who has managed a household of people can attest to the fact that it can sometimes seem like a military campaign to get everyone up, dressed, fed, organized, out the door, all work completed and everyone ready to do it all again the next day. Many households currently dealing with the reality of working and schooling from home would certainly attest to the nimbleness required to keep the whole establishment running smoothly!

Later in this same chapter, the topic of servants is again addressed, including the importance placed on the hiring of good servants as well as the responsibility of the lady of the household to ensure the physical and moral well-being of those hired to perform domestic work.

While Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management was popular in Canada in the late 19th Century, some of the advice provided in relation to the size and management of the human resources of a complex household were not the reality of a 1900 era Canadian home. According to Eric W. Sager, writing on the Transformation of the Canadian Domestic Servant, 1871-1931, most urban households in Canada who could afford domestics were single servant households. In fact, he states that census records from 1901 show that 85% of live in domestic servants from that period were female and two thirds of those under the age of 25.1 So the large Downton Abbey version of the master / servant relationship was a rarity in Edwardian Canada.

We will eventually come back to the topic of servants in a future blog post since chapter 68 (yikes!) of the book also deals with servants and their duties.

In the meantime, however, what other advice does Mrs. Beeton give our Mistress of the house?

Early rising contributes largely to good Household Management and prosperity. When a mistress is an early riser, it is almost certain that her house will be orderly and well managed. On the contrary, if she remain in bed till a late hour, then the servants, who, as we have observed, invariably acquire some of their mistress’s characteristics, are likely to become sluggards.

For those of us who are not morning people, this particular piece of advice may not be well-received, although friends and family who are early risers do tell me that they are able to get a lot done in the morning! In this instance, I am glad to not have to worry too much that my late sleeping habits are leading my non-existent servants to laziness!

Mrs. Beeton does provide significant advice to the lady of the house on how she should behave so as not to be an embarrassment to her family. Unsurprisingly, like almost all self-help manuals, Mrs. Beeton espouses the idea of being a smart manager of the household purse while at the same time remembering that charitable giving is an important part of being part of a community: “Frugality and economy are virtues without which no household can prosper… Economy and frugality must never, however, be allowed to degenerate into meanness.”

In all things, Mrs. Beeton was careful to provide her sage advice. Even in the choice of friends, she provides excellent advice that is easily transferrable to readers today: “A judicious choice of friends is most essential to the happiness of a household. An acquaintance who indulges in scandal about her neighbours should be avoided as a pestilence.”

Even fashion and what to wear, at what time, did not seem to have been missed by the keen eye of Mrs. B!

“On the important subject of dress and fashion… A lady’s dress should always be suited to her circumstances, and varied for different occasions. The morning dress should be neat and simple, and suitable for the domestic duties that usually occupy the early part of the day. This dress should be changed before calling hours; but it is not in good taste to wear much jewellry except with evening dress. A lady should always aim at being well and attractively dressed whilst never allowing questions of costume to establish inordinate claims on either time or purse.”

In reading the advice provided by Mrs. Beeton, we really get the impression that her book is meant more as a how-to manual for those ladies who aspire to a higher social status. For example, plenty of advice is given to how a lady should spend her day, assuming that that day will not be spent at a job: “After checking on the servants – she probably has letter writing to do and some marketing or shopping to do, besides numberless small duties which are better done early in the day, such as arranging flowers for the drawing room and dinner table, etc… time should be allotted for reading and harmless recreation…. When a lady has fixed here “At Home” day and cards have been issues, as for example, “Mrs. A – At Home on Wednesdays from 4 to 7,” afternoon tea should be provided by the hostess, fresh supplies of it, with thin bread-and-butter, fancy sandwiches, sweets, cakes, etc., being forthcoming as fresh guests arrive.”

Additionally, the rest of the first chapter speaks to how to receive guest, how hold dinners and gatherings, including dances and balls, how to find and furnish a new home and how much money should be spent on rent.

As regards to house shopping, one piece of advice has not changed in over a hundred years: “The aspect of the house should be well considered, remembering that the more sunlight comes into the house the healthier is the habitation.”

Mrs. Beeton has chosen The Mistress at the first chapter in her book for good reason as she makes clear in its conclusion:

“The responsibilities or duties of the mistress of a house are, though onerous and important, by no means difficult if given careful and systematic attention. She ought always to remember that she rules the household; and by her conduct its whole internal policy is regulated. She is therefore a person of far reaching importance.”

As you can imagine, a new housewife would have taken some solace and courage from the words of Isabella Beeton as she started on her grand adventure in life!

1 The Transformation of the Canadian Domestic Servant, 1871-1931, Eric W. Sager, Social Sciences History 31:4 (Winter 2007) p. 521.

Kathleen Powell is Supervisor of Historical Services and Curator at the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre and the proud owner of a 1912 copy of Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management.

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