Mrs. Beeton’s – an unlikely audiobook?

Well, if it’s out of copyright, LibriVox is going to record it sooner or later … but I’m not at all convinced anyone’ll listen to the whole of Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, now that it’s finished. It’s a 58 hour behemoth, and it’s hard to imagine anyone sitting down to quite so many hours of recipes. The fun is likely to come from dipping into random sections, especially the very dated chapters on the “Rearing and Management of Children” (recommending leeches for measles and laudanum for whooping cough and noting eating unripe plums causes cholera) and “Domestic Servants”.

I did contribute a chapter, on General Cookery, but mostly it was a giant glossary of French cooking terms, so I’ll spare you the horror of my Franglais here, and if you’re truly curious you can click through.

On the plus side, this IS a very big deal as books go, as it was a “household-bible” for many, many years (in the UK at least) and sold like the hot cakes it taught you to bake. LibriVox doesn’t hesitate to tackle large books (c.f. Decline & Fall!) and the proof is in the pudding … this took just over two years! One surprising thing, that I’ve just noticed, is that only 33 people read for the project. It feels like it ought to have been so many more, but those recipe chapters were lengthy …


  • What about that 19th century book on household management, w/ recipes, by a woman–forget her name, can’t twig it–in the States? Much, much shorter than Mrs. Beeton’s. You know the book I mean? I can find it out. She was quite well known. When I was in grad school, one of my housemates kept a copy in the W.C. I read a good bit of it there.

  • I flipped through the linked PDF of Ms. Child’s book. It’s charming and charmingly written, with all sorts of fascinating tidbits of 19th century life. Who knew – I did, actually – that butter can keep months unrefrigerated?

    “Pack your butter in a clean, scalded firkin, cover it with strong brine, and spread a cloth all over the top, and it will keep good until the Jews get into Grand Isle.”

    I love the political incorrectness of these delightful old books. (Grand Isle was founded by a Jewish American diplomat named Mordechai Noah. Expelled by the Muslim government of Tunisia, he tried but failed to create an “American Zion” near Buffalo, New York.)

  • I’m not sure that I’d mock Mrs. Beeton’s “dated” recommendation of laudanum for whooping cough. Although no remedy is considered effective against the coughing, sedatives are sometimes administered to young patients in hospitals, to let them rest. Exhaustion plays a role in the small number of infant deaths caused by the disease and its complications.

    You learn something new every day. Until now, I was under the mistaken impression that whooping cough (pertussis) and diphtheria are one and the same. They’re not.

  • Mmmm, in Black Beauty, there’s a rant against a nurse / carer for over-sedating a child and causing its death. Likely not very common (the local death records I browsed some time ago for my city, 1901-1909, seemed to have mainly suffocation or burns deaths for kids) but it probably wasn’t an insignificant risk with that kind of drug either. Not to mention the risk of the doctor taking more than the patient …

  • Happy new decade! May you read many more books beautifully, and may Librivox get bigger and better than ever!

    I think it might be hard to overdose on spoonfuls of laudanum, which as you know is opium dissolved in alcohol, but morphine overdose was certainly dangerous in 19th century medicine. Badly burned in a steamboat explosion — another common 19th century peril — Mark Twain’s brother Henry was killed by a physician who weighed out morphine on the end of his knife instead of in a balance. At the Gettysburg museum in Pennsylvania, you can see the medical kit and hand-rolled boluses (pills) of a field doctor. Another standard drug was atropine, one of whose uses was to treat morphine overdose.

    Re your remarks on London infant mortality in 1900, I found the following, on the Rockefeller University web site, about America’s 1.3 million deaths in 1900 (numbers given as deaths per 100,000, in a population of 75,000,000): Heart attack (345). Influenza, pneumonia (202). TB (194). Gastritis and enteritis (from bad food and water – beware Mrs. Beeton!) (142). All accidents (72). Cancer (64). Diphtheria (40). Typhoid (31). Measles (13). Cirrhosis (from alcoholism) (12). Whooping cough (12). STDs (12). Diabetes (11). Suicide (10). Scarlet fever and streptococcus (9).

    As you can see, diphtheria was almost four times more deadly than whooping cough, but the latter did account for about 9,000 deaths. (Both mortalities, and those of all other infectious diseases, dropped dramatically in the next decade, as sanitation improved and tenement overcrowding was ameliorated.)

    Also, I believe that “suffocation” was another way of saying SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome), which is a whole ‘nother topic altogether….

    PS: Thankfully, Librivox *is* getting bigger and better than ever. Over the past two years, I’ve listened to scores of worthwhile books, all thanks to the dedication of you and the other talented Librivox readers. Thanks so much for all of your hard work!

    If I can recommend just a few Librivox gems to you: (1) Graham Redman’s superb reading of “Draco and Solon” from “Famous Men of Greece” (he also does Tacitus brilliantly) and (2) the powerful 37th chapter, Lincoln’s assassination, from Nicolay’s “Short Life of Abraham Lincoln”.

    Also, anything by Cori Samuel is worth hearing. 🙂

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