The modest virgin, the prudent wife and the careful matron

With the whole Mother’s Day variety show behind us, I find it uncanny that both coincidence and example have blossomed before me almost repeatedly this week. The message is simple: household management is a must.

Maybe I’ve spent too much time watching the bustling wren nest over the last four weeks. It could be the catastrophic laundry room I’ve walked past a thousand times, but refuse to look into. Or perhaps that seventeen minute nap I took on Mother’s Day finally put us all behind schedule until the Fourth of July. Whatever the reason, I imagine these recurring illustrations are much like when a woman is pregnant; all she sees are the faceless masses of other pregnant women.

I see a mess in need of sorting.

I doubt I can be accused of running the tight and somewhat unforgiving household I did when my children were still of the age where I could easily demand their cooperation, or strike an element of fear in them with nothing more than a narrowing of the eye.

In fact, I’ve done that trick so often my eyes now remain in that fixed position, constantly suspicious, and puffy with lack of sleep. There is little expression left in them now, and having consulted the latest manual on the care and maintenance of women, I am told I should not cling to expectation for any return in the future.

Yes, surgery is an option for some, but it will reveal nothing in me apart from the wary demeanor buried deep within (a plague no scalpel can nip and tuck away, and only grain alcohol can temporarily blur).

Before I stray too far with my customary refusal to stick to the point, I’ll pull us back to management issues, the topic at hand.

Rijkmuseum Library, Amsterdam

Rijkmuseum Library, Amsterdam (Photo credit: leafar.)

I usually bite off far more than I can chew when it comes to my reading list, and because the literary world is analogous to an endless buffet of food (in turns savory, necessary and poisonous), I tend to keep about eight or nine books going at a time.

No, I don’t mix up characters or plots, authors or ideology, mainly because they all differ vastly from one another. Good writing is good writing, and I’ll inhale it whether it smells of curry, sabotage, or cheap wine and cigarettes.

At my bedside table is The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman, the last few pages waiting to be read and returned to the library. Within the 350 previous pages were references to old cookbooks that had me scouring Google Books in search of more than the title, author and a passing reference to the odd recipe here and there.

Title Page of "Beeton's Book of Household...

Title Page of “Beeton’s Book of Household Management” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the titles was a book I’d come across in past research but had never had the opportunity to fully appreciate until now. Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management is part recipe book, part advice column, but most importantly, a strict guideline for how things ought to be done if you wanted them done properly in 1861.

There is no way to paraphrase Isabella Beeton’s words. To fully appreciate her tone and message, I’ve pasted an excerpt of what I feel best sums up the woman, her opinion, and her ‘there are no excuses’ attitude.

As with The Commander of an Army, or the leader of any enterprise, so is it with the mistress of a house. Her spirit will be seen through the whole establishment; and just in proportion as she performs her duties intelligently and thoroughly, so will her domestics follow in her path. Of all those acquirements, which more particularly belong to the feminine character, there are none which take a higher rank, in our estimation, than such as enter into a knowledge of household duties; for on these are perpetually dependent the happiness, comfort, and well being of a family. In this opinion, we are borne out by the author of “The Vicar of Wakefield,” who says: “The modest virgin, the prudent wife, and the careful matron, are much more serviceable in life than petticoated philosophers, blustering heroines, or virago queens. She who makes her husband and her children happy, who reclaims the one from vice and trains up the other to virtue, is a much greater character than ladies described in romances, whose whole occupation is to murder mankind with shafts from their quiver, or their eyes.

Isabella Beeton (1836-65). Hand-tinted albumen...

Isabella Beeton (1836-65).

Whew. I get the feeling she walks about with a well-oiled whip at her side.

I love that part about her domestics following in her path. My dog and cat are the only domestics that follow me anywhere in our house, and that’s usually just to the bathroom for a change of scenery.

And as far as classifying ‘a knowledge of household duties’ to be topmost on the list of high ranking feminine qualities, I would assume after quizzing my family they would likely replace that with not making eye contact with them when their friends are within a five mile radius. Second might be volunteering to take over their household duties.

Fashion plate from The Englishwoman's Domestic...

Fashion plate from The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine of an 1869 issue

Yes, I greatly admire Mrs. Beeton, but I think, given the opportunity and permission not to judge herself too harshly afterward, she might have concluded that being a petticoated philosopher, a blustering heroine, or virago queen would have brought a hell of a lot more spice to her cooking and redefined her ‘careful matron’ strive-to-be status.

In the end, I find myself thumbing through her recipes, gauging whether I’d risk making dishes like barley gruel, cold tongue, or calves’ foot broth. At the risk of losing points in the prudent wife department, and possibly having to hand back my ‘Mother of the Year’ award, I’d best not.

But I’d bet the domestics would love it.


Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery this week (here) and what we’re all talkin’ about down in the pub (here)!


9 thoughts on “The modest virgin, the prudent wife and the careful matron

  1. Mrs Beeton has always fascinated me (as does the Victorian era generally). It must have been exhausting just to be her each day!
    I always have lots of books on the go too and love to read… library books, new books, old books, Kindle, factual, fiction, cereal boxes….

    • Wow. We sound so much alike. Except I draw the line at reading instructions. For some reason, the second I open up a ‘how to’ manual, my eyes glaze over, sounds grow foggy … I can gain a good hours nap just trying to figure out how to clean the oven. Ol’ Izzy is probably rolling in her grave at the thought. I can almost hear the crack of that whip.

  2. I think you should try some of the recipes! LOL. They are indeed fortunate to have such a “lady” in their lives. Just give’em the mom look if they say anything. Thank you for again sharing wit and humor. Gary

    • Really? Make calves’ foot PB&Js? Huh … I’m adventurous, but I’m also observant. Most of those guys like to stand in their own cowpie patties all day long just for fun. You try it first and let me know how it goes. 🙂

      • Good point. I guess you have also seen them stand in a pond/stream, taking water in one end and making it out of the other, oblivious to water currents and/or flavor. But then again, the PB will mask most everything else. Plan “B”, since you are admitting to “adventurous” status, would be to make a meal from one of the unique recipes, call it meatloaf or the similar equivalent, and then half way through the meal announce that it really wasn’t truly meatloaf. Have a camera ready. Always glad to help you enhance your status and reputation! 🙂

  3. Dear Ms. Isabella Beeton,

    As blessed as I am currently to be married to my wife, and with three small wonderful little girls, all under the priceless, innocent age of 8, it is through my most humble capacity that I welcome you to the year 2012 (God bless mothers everywhere). With all do respect, even though I do wear pants in the house, (and most often outside of the house, except on St. Patrick’s Day), mind you I do not wear “the” pants of the house. I am, to say more of a servant to the well wishes (or manic cries) of our home dwellers. Think of me as merely a partial you and an EMT for all calamities, equal to (in my simple mind), although most definitely not always seen eye-to-eye with my bride.

    What ever the men of your relished and celebrated times where honored to be able to expect of their wives; the world… well, at least in my household, has taken a 180 degree turn. As much as we believe we “share” responsibility, and we both do an extreme amount of honest work to manage the farm (as I call it), not once would I even bare the thought of chancing the slightest pain I would endure to expect; mind you non-the-less even ask my beautiful bride to assume full responsibility for all household duties. It is most often easiest just to do them, see the accomplishment and expect only the simplicity of mise en place for my own piece of mind… minus any verbal acknowledgement I would enjoy to receive from anyone.

    Household chores, feed, bathe, laundry, cooking (that’s a shaky one)… other’s to imperil my ability to live in the same abode with the expected notion that the wife will be responsible for it all? Not a chance.

    Lastly, regarding the vice versus virtue, I guess it depends on the day. So, give me whiskey or give me solstice and a good book with some hot tea and a quiet room for 1 hour. As far as the last; whose whole occupation is to murder mankind with shafts from their quiver, or their eyes… I’ll take my chances on this one. It’s been awhile after three kids.

    Best regards,

    Stosh 🙂

    • I think Mrs. Beeton would have been happy to hear that women have made such headway in the world where management is concerned. I also think she would be aghast to see that women have stripped many men of their britches (figuratively speaking). Of course, many of those men could outshine old Isabelle and help her draft a rewrite.
      I shall forward her post from you. It might be a while before she gets it.

  4. Having grown up in farming country, the bovine standing in the cowpats was my first thought about the calves foot recipe. Ugh. I confess, from time to time the thought has briefly synapsed through the grey matter that my lifetime achievement award would be for organisation and running a household. You almost make it sound desirable! One does wish there was some way to have that skill recognised as not everyone has it. Perhaps living to watch our children grown up is the reward. Have noticed my 25 yr old daughter has thus far excelled me in that area, so perhaps she had an okay role model!

    • I agree. There should be more recognition. An award show. A sash and crown. Maybe a day where McDonald’s puts your name up on every marquee available across your country and names a sandwich after you. I’ll noodle on it. It’s true, we can’t all be Martha Stuarts, but I suppose I’d settle for everything she’s been able to do apart from time in the slammer.
      And I’m guessing from the sound of it, you’ve passed your scepter on to a very capable and appreciative individual. That somehow feels payment enough. 😉

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