Sunday, June 19, 2011

Beeton's all about everything

I love old books and have been collecting them since I first had a few dollars to call my own, straight after I left home. I remember as a uni student spending an entire week's pitiful wages (from the pizzeria and laundromat where I worked on the days I wasn't at uni) on a magnificent 1880's illustrated book of Tennyson's 'Elaine, the Lily Maid of Astolat' illustrated by Gustave Dore. I had to borrow money from my sister to eat the next week, and had to walk part of the long way home from uni many times to save money on bus fares, but to me it was worth it. I still have the book now, and it's probably worth a good deal more now, not that I'd ever really find out as I could never bring myself to part with it! I love the way with old books you get such a sense of the human face of history--of the personal and intimate, the weird and wonderful, the familiar and the completely unexpected.
I collect only books in subjects I'm interested in, but I'm not exactly very methodical about it. And I also collect books and magazines that are helpful for me when I'm writing historical novels--you get tons of info from publications from the time you're writing about, much more than you'd get if you simply look up modern reference books or the Internet. So thanks to physically rummaging through hundreds of second hand bookshops all over the world as well as happily trawling through the wonders of, I've got collections of everything from gorgeous illustrated 19th cent editions of fairytales to old-fashioned travel guides, old French books about Australia to a weird series of 1930's true-crime books,from an 18th cenury encyclopedia to a jolly series of 19th century recipe books, to Beeton's All About Everything.
Beeton's All About Everything is a wondrous thing for a historical novelist because it details everything a 19th century person needed to know about household management--from how to manage servants to what medicine to give a sick child, from full instructions for cooks and housemaids to how to take care of horses to how to make a paste that can cure alcoholism(the drunkard must be given a paste made of a mixture of tartar emetic and rose-water). There's some unintentionally hilarious titles of sections, such as 'Infants, Bringing up by Hand' or 'Rabbit, to Judge of'. And there are all kinds of recipes, for food and drinks but also for poultices, medicines, cleaning fluids, polishes and lots more!
Even if you're not writing a historical novel, it's a real joy to dip into and get a real insight into how a middle-class household was meant to run. And for cooks and those interested in the history of cooking, there's not only the recipes, but also lots of fascinating snippets, from how a cook was supposed to operate, to info(and pictures) on kitchen utsensils, from how to run an ice-house to how to fatten ducks.
Beeton's All about Everything was written by Samuel Orchart Beeton, an English publisher whose main claim to fame is that his second wife was Isabella Beeton, the famous Mrs Beeton whose Everyday Cookery and Household Management was a massive bestseller in its time and continues to be in print to this day(there is a lovely new facsimile edition of this, incidentally, now published by Australia's own Five Mile Press.)Mrs Beeton's immense fame encouraged her enterprising husband to write or edit or publish a whole series of Beeton's All About--whatever: cookery, gardening, country life, hard words(!!), book-keeping, etiquette, and of course--everything! He also produced Christmas annuals, reference books, such as guides to the stock exchange, to letter-writing, biography, potted history and the care of pets; collections of humorous stories suitable for speeches; prize books for boys and girls and all sorts of improving children's books, and lots more. He and his wife were certainly a hive of industry, operating on the age-old publishing principle that you can't go wrong if you give the public more of what they've always wanted.
But when Isabella died, Beeton's publishing empire started to go to bits and by the time he himself died, he'd been forced to sell his 'Beeton's' name to other publishers(Ward, Lock especially) and work for them for a salary. After his death the books continued to be published--mine dates from 1880 or so, after Beeton's death.

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