The Mistress of the House, OR: What Lizzy Did At Pemberley

The Mistress of the House, OR: What Lizzy Did At Pemberley

What Elizabeth Bennet’s life would have been like once she became Mrs. Darcy of Pemberley is the subject of a good many Austen variations out there, and it’s been something I’ve been considering recently as I work on Anne de Bourgh’s Diary, a story which commences on the day of Elizabeth and Darcy’s wedding. Though Lizzy was lucky enough to have Mrs. Reynolds, an extremely experienced housekeeper, to help her, there would still have been tasks she would have had to take on herself as the new mistress of Pemberley.

Of course, Elizabeth was ‘the daughter of a gentleman’, from an estate which, while small in comparison to Pemberley, still kept servants and maintained a high standard of living. Mrs. Bennet was particularly scornful of Charlotte Lucas being ‘wanted about the mince pies’, stating that “I always keep servants that can do their own work; my daughters are brought up very differently.” Presumably Lizzy and the other Bennet daughters learned from their mother how to instruct servants, and upgrading to Pemberley would really be more a matter of scale than a whole new skill set to learn.

Still, it got me thinking; what exactly would the mistress of Pemberley’s duties be? Research is a rabbit hole I can disappear down forever, but I honestly believe it’s always time well spent. Everything I learn might not make its way into any version of the story, but background knowledge is always useful. And though it’s a little late for the time period in which most Austen variations and continuations take place, hands-down the best reference I know of is Isabella Beeton’s The Book of Household Management. Originally a series of articles in The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, it was first published as a book in 1861, and went through a series of revisions and expansions. An edition of the book is still in print today, but as a reference book, I prefer the original. You can get it for free in various e-formats at the Gutenberg Project website, and I highly recommend it as a resource for seeing just how the middle and upper class would have lived and what they would have eaten in the first half of the 19th century.

If you’d like to see complete issues of The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, see this page for some links. Quite a few issues are digitized for online viewing.

There’s a lot of controversy over Mrs’ Beeton’s work, not least in part because large chunks of it were plagiarized from other people. I was reading The Magazine of Domestic Economy (1936) and almost the entire section about spring-cleaning has clearly been lifted straight from that to The Book of Household Management. Most if not all of Beeton’s recipes were first published in other places as well, but the fact remains that her book is one of the best places to find all the information in one spot… and a) she’s long dead and no longer benefiting from royalties anyway, and b) the book’s free. let’s just say that Isabella and her husband were more the collators of information than the creators of it, and move on 😀

While Mrs. Beeton’s book includes a great many directions for managing a household, and the roles of both mistress and housekeeper, it’s actually largely known as a cookbook. I find it fascinating to look at the recipes used and what cooks considered standard at different periods in history, and intensely frustrating when authors get things wrong – the Potato Paradox is one that seems to trip up so many writing in the Middle Ages and earlier, since potatoes are a New World crop and didn’t appear in Europe at all until after Columbus’ voyages to the Americas, it drives me round the bend when Robin Hood and the Merry Men are tucking into some nice jacket potatoes cooked in the fire ashes along with their spit-roasted haunch of venison!

(Yes, I’ve really seen that in a book. No, I’m not going to name the author here.)

As I remarked before, Mrs. Beeton’s seminal work was published in 1861, so it’s really a bit ‘late’ for the purposes of researching what Austen’s characters would have eaten, and especially how their food would have been prepared, since the technology of cooking stoves took a pretty major leap forward in the Victorian era. My favourite resource for investigating food through the ages is the Food Timeline, and from this I followed a link to The Cook and Housewife’s Manual (1826) by Margaret Dods. Careful; though there are links to books which fit more precisely in the Austen period of 1800 – 1820, they’re published in the US and the food would have been quite different to what would have appeared on an English table of the time.

I love to cook, so I’m planning on doing some experimentation with some of the recipes from the Dods book. Though I don’t think I could bring myself to ‘dress a calf’s head’ – even if I could get hold of one, I’m pretty sure I couldn’t convince anyone in my family to eat it – there are lots that sound good. I’m definitely going to try this one, for example, though I might cheat a bit when it comes to beating the eggs by hand!

I’ll report back next month with pictures!

11 Responses to The Mistress of the House, OR: What Lizzy Did At Pemberley

    • Thank you! Historical research is a rabbit hole I could stay down forever, but I do think understanding how people lived in the time we’re writing about is important if we want to create a realistic story.

  1. Although I love trying new recipes, I don’t think I could eat what they did back in the day. I remember what my great-grandmother put on her table. My great-great uncle would hunt dry-land fish [morel mushrooms] after a rain, while my great uncle hunted squirrel. She cooked it all and I even remember a platter of beef tongue on the table. No… I don’t think I could handle it today. She wasted nothing and the all men-folk who sit at her table didn’t turn down anything. She was a fabulous cook and many a recipe has been lost with her passing. I remember my other grandmother having hogshead cheese [or head cheese] after they slaughtered a pig in the fall. That generation wasted nothing because it could mean the difference between eating and starvation. This was interesting.

    • Yes, I grew up on a sheep farm. I’ve eaten things that make me turn a bit green just thinking about today! I admit it’s mostly the desserts I’m willing to try from the old cookbooks – or at least, that I could convince my husband and kids to try eating if I do cook them 😛

  2. I had never realised that there was more to Mrs Beeton than recipes. I love to trawl through bric-a-brac shops and often come across well-used copies of her book.

    • I’d definitely get one as a reference if you can find an old enough edition – I think the editions after about 1930 cut out a lot of the stuff at the beginning and made it just a cookbook.

Comments are precious!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.