[4.5] Not simply a very good popular biography, a fascinating social history of the Victorian up-and-coming middle class in London and the south east,[4.5] Not simply a very good popular biography, a fascinating social history of the Victorian up-and-coming middle class in London and the south east, a history of mid-nineteenth century publishing, and a survey of British home cooking trends of the past 200 years, using the life of Mrs. Beeton and related historiography as a focus. The clue is in the title: Isabella isn't even alive for substantial chunks of the book, Tristram Shandy-like. After all, she only lived to be 28 and her work was an anthology which wouldn't gain its full influence until decades later, plus some magazine journalism.
Victorian history is one of the eras I like least, but Kathryn Hughes writes about it so well that, from her, I enjoy it as much as many others do. (At one point she comments on a historiographical trend I fully admit subscribing to: once again, the long eighteenth century has been reinvented as an era of social, sexual and 'modern' freedoms, scandalously stamped upon by the bad-tempered, repressive and philistine Victorians. Though I certainly acknowledge that the C18th judicial system was brutal, executing people for trifles [theft of], and that political representation left plenty to be desired.) I loved Hughes' biography of George Eliot (still can't fathom why I got rid of my copy), bought the first edition hardback and paperback of her Mrs B in 2005 and 2006 respectively, but didn't manage to read it all the way through until now. (In 05-07 I was too tired and too busy to finish it, plus I felt an unwanted doominess from reading it near the age that the subject died.) Was quite shocked to see that Hughes hasn't published anything substantial since – I hoped and assumed there would be at least one more great biog to read by now.
If she has any fault as a historian it's inferring and extrapolating a little too much in ways that suit her. Occasionally I imagined imitating my excellent sixth-form history tutors, underlining a sentence or two and writing “tenuous”, “tendentious”, or both, above. But this is a biography for general sale (all the press praise comes from newspapers not historical journals) and these leaps of interpretation are part of what make it great fun to read, and not merely a dry recitation of what is actually contained in the scant and sometimes conflicting extant evidence about Isabella Beeton. If that's what you care about though, Hughes also makes it pretty clear what is and isn't there. She was so dedicated to the project she even bought many of the Beetons' papers to stop them being squirrelled away by private collectors who wouldn't allow research access.
It's a very British book, assuming the reader will have heard of cookery writers such as Delia Smith, Elizabeth David and Clarissa Dickson-Wright, as well understanding various other cultural tropes, and agreeing that the reputation and what's effectively franchising of Mrs. Beeton is just as interesting as the woman herself. (This presumably explains the various negative reviews on here from Americans who read the book after seeing a TV programme.)
There's a good survey of how previous biographers, more or less under the control of Beeton relatives, have treated Mr and Mrs B, and their various biases. Hughes seems to aim for balance but I get the impression that, though not so strongly as Nancy Spain (whom I'd definitely somehow heard of even before the first time I opened this book) she is angled slightly against Isabella's husband Sam. Though I have a bias of my own, seeing in the partnership of organiser Isabella, by turns highly capable and emotionally needy, with the mercurial, slightly rakish, idea-driven Sam, something of the relationships that meant most to me. (However, in her letters she bossily says things I'd have been too scared to say to such a type.) Most of the failings placed at Sam's door can be seen as features of the time. That Victorian doctors said syphilis ceased to be infectious after only two years, not the correct five, and the lack of effective understanding of prevention, or any cure, of same, isn't the fault of one sufferer. In work, he was already unusual in involving Isabella in many aspects of his publishing business, but her involvement was still undoubtedly constrained by general views on the role of women: if she had an even greater say in the financial management and deal-making it is likely that it would have done much better, during her lifetime at least. He was a big-picture / creative type not an accountant and detail manager, and that type can do fine if they let someone capable handle the practical and money stuff for them. (Incidentally, besides the famous Book of Household Management he also started that another staple of the British Imperial establishment: Boy's Own magazine. Privately progressive in his politics, he made wily choices of market-driven respectability, but these publications would be sold on due to bankruptcy. His old canniness about public taste gave way as the neurological effects of tertiary syphilis in his final years made him uninhibited about publishing politically radical satires and erotic readers' letters – on tight-lacing fetish and whipping - in the publications he continued to manage; he also became excessively litigious.)
It wasn't one of Hughes' aims but this book, even when I only read the first half years ago, gave me a new understanding of Victorian prudery. The insistence that middle-class men be able to provide and furnish a house for their wives meant that they often didn't marry until they were 30. In the meantime, many of them had sex with prostitutes and caught syphilis. Advised by doctors that if they waited two years they wouldn't infect their virginal bride who'd been dutifully bored, ignorant and cloistered in her parents' house, they married after that time and infected the poor woman too, who generally had a string of miscarriages for the next five to seven years. After that time, healthy children were a possibility, but one or both parents might still succumb to tertiary syphilis. (Isabella Beeton died not of that but of puerperal fever after giving birth to her second healthy child – and she'd been fit and healthy enough to go hillwalking a few weeks earlier. The Beetons' were blighted by infectious disease.) Increased awareness of the prevalence of syphilis and its effects, especially among campaigers for women, before effective prevention and cure were available, was evidently a part of what drove the notorious puritanism of the nineteenth century, itself an understandable progression from the various currents of thought existing at the time.
Hughes has a careful eye for the peculiarities of contemporary concepts of plagiarism and copyright, in which academic culture and postmodernism acknowledge the patchwork nature of texts, yet there is great legal stringency and decrying of unoriginality in certain areas. (I thought of GR posts in which someone might use multiple reaction gifs from TV shows in response to a YA author being accused of plagiarism.) Mrs Beeton had from the 1990s onwards been quite frequently criticised – when she might have been a greater part of the domesticity revival – because she lifted much of her material from other sources, especially Eliza Acton. Acton, however, was only one of many books she used; Acton and most other cookery writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth century copied a lot. Mrs B wasn't doing anything out of the ordinary for her time – her book just got lucky in becoming the most famous. (I described it as an anthology at the beginning of the post, which seemed the best way to reflect that it was short on original material yet still legit.)
I've been drawn most to this book at times when I've found my own horizons narrowed towards prim domestic occupation. First time round though I didn't have the energy to finish the book – I had managed to stay in a job for more than six months without having to take huge amounts of sick leave – though a few months later I'd have to leave, whilst taking three months to recover from a severe flu - was resigned to a make-do relationship I should never have been in at all, and spent my weekends doing housework because I barely had the energy to move in the evenings (it took me a whole weekend, with rests, just to clean a one bedroom flat). Not much later when things were more exciting again I wanted to * have read * it because I realised that my low energy levels and liking for detail – though not my natural interests - made me a good fit for fashionable cupcake domesticity, but again I couldn't manage to read a big book like this and do much else.
Hughes points out that domesticity became fashionable again only when it could be voluntary. (The yummy mummies are like Marie Antoinette playing shepherdess, I've long cynically thought – being someone who simply finds more intellectual or artistic occupations, and life out in the world, more interesting, and who doesn't consider she should value boring stuff just because it was traditionally female.) The trendiness and imagery around cookery and housework, even if it is a bit twee, can at least make it, or a frugal version of it, seem like a consolation prize rather than mere drudgery, when very little else is possible. (Whether it's because of health, or those who are stuck because of unemployment or because the job wouldn't pay for the childcare.) Sceptical, yes, though I confess - and am lucky enough to have been able to afford - I bought a fucking Boden jumper recently, albeit second hand. It was brighter and less depressing than the grey and brown ones...)...more
Never have I found it more difficult to finish a lovelier book. My first attempt was derailed five years ago; the second was ultimately successful onlNever have I found it more difficult to finish a lovelier book. My first attempt was derailed five years ago; the second was ultimately successful only after a three-month hiatus. And this little volume carried so much weight by now, as a favourite of several people - exes, friends, the hard-to-label - from different times and places in my life ... all of which have something of the partially-lost domain about them.
I started reading it again in a sunny May garden surrounded by birdsong - the first time I'd had a garden to myself; it proved the perfect place and bestowed the magic for the book to take on its own life.
It's so delicately perfect that I hesitate to describe it and review it in my clumsy words. I was in the vicinity of the verge of tears for most of the story, yet not upset.
The descriptions of the seasons are some of the prettiest I can recall.
Most of this book is a beautiful bittersweet dream. Occasionally, it is like waking in a sweat and wondering, cursing, why the hell one did something. Though being characters in a highly romanticised novel, these people do take some of their actions to extremes.
Meaulnes contains elements of many - more recently written - books I've already read, yet it never palled. As Augustin and Francois glimpse an enchanting place, reading this felt like seeing a source of favourite stories and ideas....more
The Epic pulses with primitive rhythm and the mesmeric quality of repeating structures constructed under the oral tradition. Some lines of this translThe Epic pulses with primitive rhythm and the mesmeric quality of repeating structures constructed under the oral tradition. Some lines of this translation feel as if they could be chanted and accompanied by drums.
It was scary, as well as fascinating: here is a voice from a time when life everywhere was harsher, when values were different - 1500-2000 years before Buddha or Jesus - and so many things we know wouldn't exist for millennia hence. We are very very far from home. At the same time the larger than life characters are still recognisably human, prone to raw emotions of anger, lust, friendship, sorrow, fear of death.
The book was unexpectedly easy to read in terms of actual structure, though the deep strangeness of the work demanded attention.
I feel driven to write this review whilst uploading some books I read a long time ago. The Epic of Gilgamesh is still haunting, five years after reading.
On a practical note, it's also usefully short and doesn't require the time commitment you need to read Homer unabridged, for example.
Not that I know about ancient Sumerian, but this book reads as if the translator, Andrew George, has done a very good job. His version is highly evocative....more