A Classic Book

I have walked past the book hundreds of times on my study shelves, but rarely dipped into it. My copy is a solid leather-bound tome with a ribbed spine and gilt lettering. Inside there is an inscription in my father’s hand-writing to my mother, addressed by her maiden name. It is dated September 1923, four years before they married.

The book is Mrs Beeton’s Household Management, and by the time my father bought it for my mother, it had been on the shelves for fifty years. It was a standard text, the household name for running a household. My parents’ edition was new, to meet the changing needs of society, for example through the introduction of French cuisine. It has 1,680 pages, and could act as a substantial doorstop, being almost cube-shaped, it is so chunky.

The forte of the book is food and drink. The Art of Cookery starts on page 105 and recipes end on page 1372, where Mrs Beeton turns to a glossary of culinary terms, and important items such as laying the table and menu making. There are, for instance, fourteen pages on carving different sorts of joints, birds and fish.

The Importance of Child Care?

So why have an article about Mrs Beeton in Children Webmag? The very last chapter of the book (actually Chapter LXXVII) is headed The Nursery, and in it she offers advice on the rearing of children. In these days when we emphasise children’s rights and wish to place an equal value on people of all ages, it is salutary to realise that in the lifetime of one’s parents, the way children should be brought up really was an afterthought. Mrs Beeton reckoned that it was worth devoting twelve pages to them – two pages less important than carving, and less than 1% of the space devoted to cooking.

Mrs Beeton begins the chapter well. “A mother’s responsibilities are the greatest that a woman can have, for with her rests not only the care for the daily needs of food, clothing and the like of her children, but, what is even more important, their moral training.” A mother’s responsibilities to look after children may be her greatest; if so, it is a pity that the chapter was not given greater priority, at the front of the book.

The tone of the chapter then becomes clear in Mrs Beeton’s second sentence. “No matter what good nurses and attendants she may be able to engage for her little ones, what pleasures, changes of air, model nurseries, toys and books she may afford for their benefit, she should still devote some part of her time to them at any rate; should be with them often, should know their individual childish tastes and faults, and strive by her influence, precepts and example to make them what she hopes they may be in the future.” The italics are hers.

That such advice needed to be offered implies that there were substantial numbers of parents who would otherwise have dumped their children on their nannies and never bothered with them. While it is understandable that such practices occurred in Victorian times among the super-rich, this advice was still being offered in a best-seller to a wide range of parents in the 1920s. My father and mother were both newly qualified doctors at the time. 

Mrs Beeton expands on her theme. “A mother’s influence with children is greater than any other; it is easier for her than anyone else to train them all right if she be a good and loving mother, and the little ones will rather obey her commands than those of nurse or governess, no matter how kind these may be. Some women of fashion, moving constantly in society, deny that they have time to give to their little ones. Their visits to schoolroom or nursery are few and far between. They have everything beautifully appointed in the children’s quarters, and first-rate nurses and governesses, and they cannot take time from gaiety and pleasure to devote to what they think can be obtained from hired service. This is a mistake, for no nurse, however excellent, can supply a mother’s place.”

Happy Hour

The solution advocated by Mrs Beeton is the children’s hour. For many years in the pre-television era, Children’s Hour was a radio programme aimed at children every afternoon at 5 p.m.. For Mrs Beeton in the pre-radio era, “The children’s hour should be an institution in every household. To the young folks it is (or should be) the happiest time of the day, while to the attendants it is a rest and a great relief. Let the children bring their little troubles and sorrows to mother, to be set right and comforted; let praise be given for little tasks well done, disputes be settled, help and suggestions given for either work or play, and let a game or tale (the latter told, not read) conclude the happy hour. Should this, as it often happens, be just the time generally given to afternoon tea, let the little ones bring this to their mother and wait upon her as children love to do. She will not find an hour wasted in this way, even if it be one hard to spare.”

Mrs Beeton then goes on to talk of children’s amusements, taking a dim view of parents who spend too much on toys such as wax dolls. “The truth is, modern children are often surfeited with play things.” Her solution is to let a child have one toy at a time, putting it tidily away before getting out the next. Games should be played healthily out of doors.

Her advice on clothing is practical. “The main requirements of children’s clothing are lightness, freedom and warmth.” Her approach to food is pragmatic as well – especially in the light of the hundreds of pages of recipes earlier in the book. “Children’s food should be nourishing rather than stimulating.”

A New Baby

All the above is covered in a couple of pages. Mrs Beeton then uses half of the chapter to cover the arrival of the infant and its first month or so. She covers the appointment of the “Monthly Nurse”, a term I had not come across before, apparently referring to a maternity nurse to help mother during her lying in after the birth. Wet nurses get a mention but appear to have been out of fashion by this time. There is a page about getting babies to take their first gasp of air, then a page on washing and dressing babies. Mrs Beeton is an advocate of tepid baths for children who cannot stand cold water, but she is against hot baths.

The next page and a half is about feeding babies. In summary Mrs Beeton is pro-breast-feeding, but recommends as an alternative watered down cow’s milk with sugar and cream added. She then adds a few paragraphs about food for children who are teething, concluding, “Children should not be allowed to eat between meals.”

Bad Habits

“Most children have a bad habit of which they must be broken; but this is never accomplished by harshness without developing worse evils. Kindness, perseverance and patience in the nurse are here of the utmost importance.” If children such their fingers, for example, “the fingers should be rubbed with bitter aloes, or some equally disagreeable substance.”

The nurse “should never be permitted to inflict punishment on these occasions, or, indeed, on any occasion. But, if punishment is prohibited, it is still more necessary that all kinds of indulgence and flattery be equally forbidden.” Children should not be allowed to beat dogs, and “if a child fall, treat the incident as a trifle, otherwise a spirit of cowardice and timidity is encouraged.”  This is the approach to childcare which moulded the Empire-builders.

If a child had serious problems, it was for the nurse to tell the parents. “If properly checked in time, evil propensities may be eradicated.” This should be limited only to serious defects, though, so that the staff do not get a reputation for spying on the children.

The Nursery

The chapter ends with three pages about the design of the nursery and about the nursery staff. 

The nursery needs to be “a bright, cheerful room, sunny and airy”, with the walls “covered with sanitary paper of some cheerful pattern, and varnished”. She prefers cork linoleum to carpets, but agrees to one or two washable rugs.

Mrs Beeton is keen on fresh air, and she mentions the need for ventilation several times. She notes, “…the delicate organs of childhood are more susceptible of injury from smells and vapours than adults. that which is known to injure children most seriously is foul air; keeping the rooms where they sleep closely shut up is destruction for them; and if the child’s breathing be disordered by disease, a few hours only of such foul air may endanger its life…”.

Mother’s Helps

The respective duties of the Head Nurse, the Upper Nursemaid,  Nursemaid, the Under Nursemaid and the Nursery Governess are all discussed. They are all expected to be of exemplary character, child-centred and prepared to work long hours (with time off in children’s hour). “Patience and good temper are indispensable; truthfulness, purity of manners, minute cleanliness, and docility and obedience are almost as essential”.

It is the Head Nurse’s job to manage the nursery, while the Upper Nursemaid’s role to take over the whole care of the child from the mother once it is weaned. “It must now be separated from its mother, at least for a time…”.  The Nursery Governess takes on the role of the elder sister, teaching in the classroom and instructing children in sewing. The Under Nursemaid gets the short straw. She “lights the fires, sweeps, scours, and dusts the rooms, and makes the beds, empties slops and carries up water, brings up and removes the nursery meals, washes and dresses all the children, except the infant, and assists in mending”. The chapter closes with a paragraph on incidental duties – helping the mistress, dusting the drawing room, arranging the flowers, and many other little tasks, which “should be willingly performed if there be time to spare from that which must be devoted to the children”. Phew.

Reviewing Mrs Beeton

You might think that an article about a book should ordinarily be in the Book Reviews section, but I have not reviewed the book to help you decide whether to buy it. Its fascination is what it says about child care and the place of little children in the order of priorities in Mrs Beeton’s time. The book as a whole was a highly influential classic, but childcare was clearly an afterthought, low down in the priorities of the lady of the house.

In some ways Mrs Beeton was probably quite go-ahead, for example in her attitude to punishment, but in other respects we can only acknowledge how our treatment of children has changed since her day. She makes no mention of children once they reached school age. Maybe she simply ran out of paper and ink. Or she may have considered older children not to be part of the household that needed to be managed. Or again, it may be that she was influenced by her personal experiences.

I was born nearly two decades after my father gave Mrs Beeton’s Household Management to my mother. By the time I arrived, my eldest sister was fifteen years old and my parents had had plenty of opportunity to develop their expertise in raising children. I wonder, though, whether they ever took her childcare advice seriously, or did my father buy the book just for the recipes?

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