cover image The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton

The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton

Kathryn Hughes, . . Knopf, $29.95 (480pp) ISBN 978-0-307-26373-5

Hughes (George Eliot ) acquaints Americans with Isabella Beeton (1836–1865), a proto–Martha Stewart whose Book of Household Management —still legendary in Britain—urged women to co-opt the efficient operation of their husbands' factories. The first author with unrestricted access to the Beeton archives, Hughes sketches her subject's life and oeuvre with clarity and intimate knowledge of the Victorian milieu. She explores the welter of contradictions that gnawed at Beeton's life and legacy. The rather mousey "diva" died at 28, yet wrote with tetchy middle-aged authority. Though a posthumous legend, in life she remained beholden to her husband, a struggling publisher made solvent by her success. As "editrix" of his women's magazines, Beeton intuited the language that would resonate with readers. Her readership was also defined by dichotomy: aspiring women ushered into the industrial age, caught between the old ways of homemaking and the quicker, cheaper ready-made goods that flooded the London market. "Interlude" chapters offer intense analysis, showing Beeton's dexterity at reconciling the class, economic and gender tensions that lurked beneath the Book 's images of Christmas pudding. Though Hughes's allegiance to detail can pull her into tangents, she makes a salient case for Beeton's commercial and cultural importance. Illus. (May)