Having watched “The Secret Life of Mrs. Beeton”, a 2006 BBC production that I procured from the library, and still feeling a need for more detail and less theatrical conjecture on Isabella Mary Mayson Beeton’s enigmatic and short existence, I thought I’d read the above-referenced biography by Kathryn Hughes and get right down to the nitty-gritty.
Hughes is also the author of The Victorian Governess and George Eliot: The Last Victorian, and has a Ph.D. in Victorian Studies from Oxford. In short, her Victoriana credentials are thick, plus she had full and unhindered access to the entire Mayson/Beeton family archive. Access that no other Beeton biographer had been granted to date due to her descendant’s fear of not only airing some eccentric and scandalous editorial choices Mrs. Beeton’s husband made after her death involving tight-lacing and whipping, but also the speculative specter of assumed venereal disease that hung heavily over both Isabella and Samuel Beeton’s deaths and now hangs over this biography.
I will try to avoid the whole re-telling of Isabella’s life, but I do want to share some of the history and I think Hughes has ably drawn this portrait of Mrs. Beeton as a product of and an influence on the very long Victorian Age. So, in an effort to save this post from tl;dr, I’m going to break it up into installments.
Let’s start with Isabella’s ancestry, as it shows some general class transitions occurring just prior to the Victorian Age and the movement of masses of rural people to the City of London. I’ll try to keep this simple, as I get muddled with all the paternal/maternal tralala.
Isabella’s father was Benjamin Mayson born in 1801 to Reverend John Mayson, a vicar at St. Andrew’s, Thursby and Isabella Trimble, a maltster’s (or brewer’s) daughter. Records from Benjamin’s youth are gone, but he shows up at 30 as a “Manchester Warehouseman”, or linen wholesaler in London helped by his mother’s connections to cotton and flax mill families in Thursby’s neighboring village of Dalston.
Isabella’s mother, Elizabeth Jerrom was born in 1815 in the Marylebone district of London to Isaac Jerrom and Mary Standage. Both parents were domestic servants at the time of her birth, but would leave service by 1820 with her father becoming a livery stable owner and her mother running a lodging house. Mary Standage’s father, William had been “headhunted by the horse-mad Duke of Richmond to work as a groom at Goodwood “, his estate and racetrack in West Sussex and the author notes that Mary and her sisters all married men who worked with horses since “You can only marry someone you’ve already met, and a groom’s daughter in the early nineteenth century met an awful lot of grooms.”
Benjamin Mayson kept his residence in the Marylebone district and was friends with a Henry Dorling, who lodged with the Jerroms. After Benjamin’s death, Elizabeth would marry the widower Henry Dorling, so keep that kernel of trivia handy. Benjamin Mayson and Elizabeth Jerrom married on May 2, 1835 and Isabella Mary Mayson, our Mrs. Beeton, was born March 14, 1836 in Marylebone. The author is kind enough to point out that “She was fifteen months too early to be a Victorian.” Since she lived and died within the Victorian Age, I found this reasoning rather fastidious.
Benjamin then moved his wife and daughter into central London to live above his business and soon buys a house on Milk Street where Isabella’s siblings, Elizabeth Anne, John and Esther, were born. Benjamin Mayson died in 1840 of “apoplexy”, which could mean anything from epilepsy to heart attack, when Elizabeth was a few months pregnant with Esther. Hughes explains that “Death may have been everywhere in early Victorian England, but to find yourself pregnant with your fourth child and suddenly responsible for a highly capitalized business was unlucky by any standard.”
Elizabeth Mayson totally rallied as a 25-year-old widowed mother of four and ran the business in her name for three years. She shipped Isabella and Elizabeth Anne off to relatives, her widowed mother, Mary Jerrom , moved in to care for the two babies, she hired a maid and manservant and is listed in the trade directories as a “warehouseman”. The author clarifies that “it was not unusual for widows to take over this way, and the directories show many heading up pubs, livery stables, and every kind of shop from baker to jeweller.”
In the next installment, Elizabeth Mayson hooks up with Henry Dorling, a widower with his own 4 children (cue Brady Bunch music) and everyone up and moves to Epsom, of Downs and Salts fame.