This writer is lucky enough to own a copy of the real, original Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management written by Isabella Beeton (the 1869 edition). This makes fascinating reading for anybody who’s interested in housekeeping, cooking or even keeping healthy – if you want to know how to cook Jerusalem artichokes, pigeons or wallaby, this hefty tome (9 cm thick including covers) will tell you how.
First of all, to lay an old myth to rest, Mrs Beeton never says “First, catch your hare” in any of the recipes for hare, although one recipe that goes by the alarming name of “Sudden Death” begins with the words “Place a large pan of cold water on the fire, go out and catch a young fowl, chop its head off, and let it bleed until the water boils.”
Mrs Beeton also has plenty to say on the subject of house cleaning, polishing and general housekeeping. However, the instructions in this book assume that various housemaids, valets, butlers and parlour-maids would be doing the work, while the Lady Of The House who owned the book could tell them exactly how to do it or point them in the right direction. And yes, the book includes instructions on how to choose and what to pay the various servants!
A few useful cleaning tips can be found in the section directed to servants (other than the cook). As well as giving advice to footmen along the lines of correct behaviour when attending the master and mistress at a card game (no squeaky shoes, keep the lights bright and refrain from offering your master/mistress advice on how to play), a footman is told how to clean glass. After calling glass “a beautiful and most fragile article” and recommending that glass should be washed in a pair of wooden bowls (and the reflection that “accidents will happen”), Mrs Beeton suggests the following method for washing glass decanters and water jugs:
1. Fill them two-thirds full with hot (not boiling) water.
2. Put in a few pieces of “well-soaped brown paper”
3. Soak for 2–3 hours, then shake the water and paper up and down inside the decanter
4. Empty the water and paper out, then rinse with cold water.
5. Drain on a rack, then “polish them outside and inside, as far as possible, with a fine cloth.
To remove wine stains, put fine pieces of coal in warm water in the decanter, then shake (she also suggests that “a little muriatic acid” (better known these days as hydrochloric acid) for removing wine stains from decanters – maybe not!).
The other instructions for the footmen include a lot of advice regarding washing, sharpening and storing carving knives that make the reader very grateful for modern stainless steel and plastic handles – the old-fashioned sort seem very fiddly indeed, involving washing in hot soda water and storing in sifted quicklime, making sure that neither of these touch the handle. (If you have inherited this sort of tableware, take note and good luck for finding quicklime!).