TV: The Secret Life of Mrs. Beeton

mrsbeeton.jpg Mrs. Beeton attempts to hack off the head of a turtle, one of the skills required of a homemaker in Victorian times, as her maid looks on anxiously. (don't worry, she couldn't go through with it)

I am not sure how much of this dramatization of the life of Isabella Beeton, aka Mrs. Beeton, was based on fact, but it was a fascinating look at the life of the woman who managed to produce a bestselling book that endures to this day, co-manage a publishing company, and give birth to many children (only 2 of whom survived) before her death at 28.

Isabella, or Bella as she is called by her family and friends, is portrayed as a very modern, clear-headed young woman by Anna Madeley. She is definitely the one in charge in the relationship with her husband Samuel, who is a handsome, charming, intelligent yet philandering mess, who contracts syphilis through one of his many extramarital affairs, and possibly passes it on to his wife - this is suggested as a cause of her miscarriages, stillbirths, and her untimely death.

The most interesting part of this portrayal was that it emphasized the point that Mrs. Beeton, in fact, did not really know much about cookery or household management at all. She had to do extensive research for her books and her magazine articles, and was (though this isn't brought up in the drama) probably plagarized, at least according to current day standards, earlier works by authors like Eliza Acton. She was only a "slip of a girl", not a comfortable, matrony lady with years of running a home under her belt. That image was the one behind which she and her husband concealed "Mrs. Beeton"'s identity.

Isabella Beeton was a writer, editor and businesswoman first, not a skilled cook or housekeeper. She saw the market need for a manual for middle-class women of the time to be able to run their households "like running an army" - and she was quite right to see that need. Having recently read Julia Child's posthumous autobiography My Life in France, I couldn't help seeing the parallels. Julia Child did become a skilled cook of course, and I'm not saying she plagarized anyone by any means, but she had the writing and editing skills plus the business acumen, and determination, to see through the publication of Mastering the Art of French Cooking; if it had been left up to her French partners in writing, that book probably would have never seen the light of day.

On an entertainment level, this just showed how skilled the BBC is at producing top quality period dramas. (I've also enjoyed the recently aired Jane Eyre series, as well as the prequel Wide Sargasso Sea, immensely.) Everything looked right - the clothing, the sets, even the kitchen equipment. The device of having Mrs. Beeton talk directly to the audience was a bit off-putting but tolerable.

The Secret Life of Mrs. Beeton re-airs on BBC Four this Saturday, 21 October, in the UK or on satellite at 22:20 BST / 23:20 CET. If it comes to your version of the BBC, and you have any interest in food, domestic science or women in history, don't miss this one.


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I wish I could see this. I do get one piddidly BBC Prime channel here but it seems to show really old shows. Maybe one day...