The primary source that I have elected to research directly concerns itself with gender roles established in 19th-century England. A cookbook—the cookbook of the time period, for that matter—titled Mrs. Beeton’s Cookery Book1 was known as a household item for middle-upper class women of the Victorian era. In many senses, it was much more than just a recipe book; it could even be considered an encyclopedia for women’s roles at the time. However, before I discuss the contents and implications of this highly esteemed piece of literature, it is important to note the contexts in which it was both developed, as well as the reasons why it became so influential to an entire era of women.
Without a doubt, 19th-century England—the Victorian era—was a time period in which gender roles were more pronounced than ever before. In fact, it is entirely likely that these gender roles, as well as the stigmas surrounding the gender roles that were established during the Victorian era continue to carry lasting effects into the gender roles that habit most Western cultures and societies today. For example, men were expected to be the primary occupation holders in a Victorian household.2 In other words, it is likely that the common idea that men should be the “breadwinners” of a household stems from Victorian England, as prior to the early 19th century, it was common for both a wife and her husband to pursue one occupation and support their family together.3 While the notion that men should be the sole proprietors in a household has been significantly ameliorated today, it is still painfully clear that in many parts of the world, this idea still holds much weight. However, in Victorian times, women were not just meant to “stand idly by”—in fact, the role of women was quite important, and stemmed beyond just domestic tasks.
It was generally believed in the Victorian era that while women were thought to be less physically capable than men, they were far superior in terms of morality.4 Thus, this led to women taking on more roles within the household, where morality was meant to be kept the highest. There is often a misconception nowadays that during this time, the only roles within the household that women would take on were limited to laborious, or even menial tasks such as cooking, cleaning, child-rearing, and gardening. However, Victorian women’s roles—especially those of the middle-upper classes—were far more intellectually demanding. Middle-upper class women were in charge of passing on moral values and lessons to the next generation and prevent their husbands from becoming immoral due to the time he spent away from the household. All of these roles and expectations stemmed from the belief that women were naturally more moral than men, and should thus take advantage of their natural edge by staying within the domestic sphere.5 Of course, this line of thinking is deeply flawed and grossly over-generalized; women should not be confined to just domestic spheres and be forced to play roles that they do not necessarily want to play.
Although women were thought to be naturally more morally gifted than men, this did not mean that women were also born with the natural ability to upkeep a household in accordance with Victorian society’s unwritten standards. So, it was common for most middle-upper class Victorian women to undergo some form of training or education on household management prior to marriage.6 While these standards and rules were not officially written or set in stone by any major organization, it was clear that they were universally understood within the middle-upper class. This ubiquitous understanding of the norms of household management can be largely attributed to Mrs. Beeton’s Cookery Book. As I mentioned previously, to the women of the Victorian era, Mrs. Beeton’s Cookery Book was much more than just a cookbook—it was an encyclopedia, providing a holistic view of what a household ought to look like. Replete with sections on “Marketing, Laundry Work, Labour-Saving, Household Hints, and Table Decoration” in addition to tasteful recipes, Victorian women looked to Mrs. Beeton for everything one needed to know about household management.7
The book itself is largely centered around the concept of dining. With dining being the focus of the book, it may seem odd that this book was something that was referred to for use in everyday life. However, it is important to understand how pervasive dining and cooking culture was to people in the Victorian era; Mrs. Beeton herself once explained, “Dining is the privilege of civilization.”8 To Mrs. Beeton and most other women at the time, dining was more than just eating for sustenance—it was an act of civility, for to dine well was to demonstrate one’s class and cultural knowledge.9 With this understanding of the importance of dining, it is easy to see how Mrs. Beeton was able to influence and guide an entire era of women. When looking further into the specific sections of the Cookery Book, it is incredible how much specificity is used to describe daily activities. For example, one section of the book explains to the readers how to properly manage a conversation.10 To current-day readers, learning about how to hold a conversation through a book—a cookbook, no less—is almost laughable; why would women, or anyone at all, need to read a book to understand how to have a conversation? The answer to this question lies in the fact that everything was standardized in Victorian society. From conversations to dining habits, it was necessary for all women to be on the same page.11