Sunday, 22 August 2010
One of the first things I remember about an individual who has since become a great friend is an enthusiastic reference in a graduate tutorial on British history to Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management as a symbol of Victorian domesticity. At the time I myself had never heard of Mrs. Beeton. I did not know that familiarity with Mrs. Beeton at so tender an age almost invariably indicated a rare refinement of intellect.
Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management is a classic piece of Victorian literature, and although it was published 40 years before the Edwardian age began in 1901, the domestic world reflected in its pages very much continued into the twentieth century. Mrs. Beeton herself did not live to see the lasting impact of her guide to domesticity, dying at age 28 following the birth of her fourth child - one peril of contemporary womanhood that perhaps put the constant tyranny of the household into a bit of perspective.
The Victorian and Edwardian households of the type envisioned by Isabella Beeton relied entirely on the presence of many full-time servants that came very cheap and worked very hard. Her guide, at the very least, enumerated tasks for: "Housekeeper, Cook, Kitchen-maid, Butler, Footman, Coachman, Valet, Upper and under house-maids, Lady’s-maid, Maid-of-all-work, Laundry-maid, [and Nurses as required]." Everything about this lifestyle was labour-intensive.
The eating habits of the middle, and most especially upper-middle and upper classes, represented this expense of labour perhaps more than any other aspect of the house. Brush-scrubbed front stairs stayed clean for at least a short period of time. Household linens starched to immaculate whiteness by the laundry-maid supplied use for at least a few days. But elaborately conceived suppers consisting of multiple courses were consumed in a matter of hours. Or perhaps not consumed, at least at the main table - even the strongest Edwardian was no doubt taxed by the sheer amount of food on offer.
Grand meals in the Victorian and Edwardian eras were heavy on meat, animal fats, and impressive presentation, following French culinary trends that were imported to Britain following the French Revolution and popularized by "celebrity" French chefs such as Antonin Careme (1784-1833) and Auguste Escoffier (1846-1935).
There were game birds to be plucked and skinned and trussed. Whole hogs to be roasted. Sweets to be carefully created to look and taste as light as air. Jellies to be crafted into impossible shapes in improbable colours [Illustrated in the plate featured above]. The Edwardians loved their jellies and aspics and any cuisine that involved great effort and skill, all the better to show off the worth of the cook and, by extension, the wealth of the household. Many of these tasks required reproduction day after day, whether the meals were "simple" repasts for the members of the household or a grand foray into social climbing on the part of the hostess.
And so the era was built on the hard work of many, the leisure of some, and a surfeit of the culinary bounty of the nation for the plates of the fortunate.
[Illustrations from later editions of Mrs. Beeton's book.]