The Guildhall Library is not known well enough. Admittedly, it is housed in a hideous building just round the corner from the Guildhall, in itself a fascinating place, but the collection, which is freely available to anyone who wishes to consult it, is stupendous. There really is no other word for it.

Among other collections there is an enormous one on food and drink that includes numerous cookery books of past and present. At the moment there is an exhibition there, that I can strongly recommend, of three Victorian cooks and writers of cookery books, Mrs Beeton, of course, her predecessor, Eliza Acton and the "people's chef" Alexis Soyer. The exhibition is quite small, with three glass topped stands, one for each personality and an amusing display of cardboard models of various deserts from Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management.

The accompanying notes give a good summary of the various cookery books and one or two utensils displayed. The story of Mrs Beeton and her books is well told and may not be of great interest to people who think they know everything about the lady and her work but I would advise paying a little attention as, for one reason or another, she has been traduced in popular opinion. One reason is that her widower (she died at the age of 28) found himself in deep financial problems and had to sell his journal and the rights to her book. This was subsequently republished with ridiculous additions, particularly of the grand Edwardian variety. The original text was not reprinted in facsimile till the 1980s, reprinted several times and has now become available on line. Readers who are interested can look at the book and see that far from flouncy it was a very straightforward manual that gave advice and instructions to middle class wives and mothers on how to produce reasonably nourishing food at reasonable prices (as well as the occasional grand dinner) and how to run their households.

It has been said with some justification that Mrs Beeton, unlike some though not all modern cookery writers did not bother to test all the recipes (there was no time for that, given the speed with which she produced the installments that became the book eventually) and that she plagiarized a great deal, particularly from Eliza Acton.

We run into difficulties here. As the exhibition and the notes explain, Eliza Acton, though less well known, is more highly regarded by a number of experts like Elizabeth David and Delia Smith. Her life appears to be somewhat more glamorous than the overworked Mrs Beeton's and recently it has become fashionable to elevate her while denigrating her successor.

A few years ago Sheila Hardy produced a biography of Eliza Acton and called it The Real Mrs Beeton. I have not yet read the book but fully intend to and may well find it very interesting but I do think that is a silly title. Eliza Acton was not the real Mrs Beeton unless you use that name to describe any cookery writer; she was the real Eliza Acton and not, by a very long chalk, the first cookery writer for middle class families in England.

Kathryn Hughes, Isabella Beeton's biographer and the promulgator of the dubious theory that Sam Beeton had syphilis with which he infected his wife who died of it, reviewed Sheila Hardy's book with some irony:
Miss Acton has long been set up as the saint to Mrs Beeton's sinner. Where Isabella Beeton (pictured) is Victorian in a stodgy, over-boiling the veg, old biddyish kind of way, Eliza Acton is an Austenish heroine: a stylish Regency spinster, a poet rather than a journalist, a committed cookery writer rather than an opportunistic hack. Elizabeth David, herself a patron saint of food writing, enshrined Acton's superiority to Beeton in a couple of important revisionist articles that appeared in the 1960s. Jane Grigson, also generally agreed to be on the side of the cookery angels, further hymned Acton's greatness as the true founder of modern recipe making. So, too, does Delia Smith in her foreword to this new biography. In short, anyone who wants to be in the kitchen cool gang knows that the name to drop is Acton's.

There's an added frisson to the Acton/Beeton face-off, which comes from Beeton lifting scores of "receipts" from Acton's Modern Cookery for Private Families, stitching them into her own Book of Household Management as if they had emerged from her own steamy kitchen. Household Management went on to become a cultural behemoth, lumbering through the 19th and 20th centuries gathering millions of readers as it went, while Acton's Modern Cookery remained a minority taste. To like Acton, then, is to assert not just your culinary discrimination but your sense of moral justice too.
Without knowing what Miss Acton's poetry was like it is hard to glamorize that aspect of her literary activity but restoring her name in the ranks of top cookery writers is a reasonable enough exercise though I do not think it had ever been really dropped. But does it have to be one or the other? Can one really not read both if interested in nineteenth century cooking and make decisions about quality of recipes on the basis of that?

While we are on the subject of Austenish heroines, let it be noted that Miss Austen's heroines did not cook and only secondary characters supervised the kitchen. Mrs Bennett makes it very clear twice that her daughters did not have anything to do with cooking, baking or any kitchen activity.


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