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Isabella Beeton biography recounts life of world's first domestic goddess

Although she's never been a household name in this country, Isabella Beeton was the world's first domestic goddess.

Or at least that's how Kathryn Hughes describes Beeton in the biography "The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton" (Alfred A. Knopf, paperback, $15.95.)

Hughes' biography chronicles the life of a young newlywed who lived in Victorian England and whose name became known to generations of Britons. Isabella Beeton was a symbol, much like Betty Crocker. But unlike the American icon, Isabella Beeton was a real person.

She was born in 1836, the oldest child of a mother who went on to have a total of 14 children. Her father died when she was little. Her stepfather, who owned a racetrack, was a widower who brought children of his own into the family.

Needless to say, Isabella did a lot of baby-sitting. At one point, her mother and stepfather moved her and some of the younger children into rooms under the grandstand of a racetrack, where she took care of the little ones — perhaps aided by a sister or her grandmother. It wasn't exactly a home, but it seems to be where young Isabella got most of her household-management experience.

Hughes believes Beeton only went into the business of telling other women how to cook and manage their homes because, at the age of 19, she married a man who owned a publishing company.

Sam Beeton needed a book to sell. So Isabella wrote one for him. She wrote more than 1,000 pages — lifting lots of recipes from other people's cookbooks and giving advice on the duties of valets and ladies' maids, although her household most certainly didn't have either.

She wrote as if she were middle-aged and rather elegant. But Beeton's real life was sadder than her words let on.

Beeton died in 1865, at the age of 28. Hughes believes she died of syphilis. That theory seems plausible given that Beeton also had several babies die, and also given the fact that, in his later years, Sam seemed to lose his mind in the same way that syphilitics lose their minds.

A recent PBS docudrama presents Isabella and Sam Beeton as Hughes thinks they were: A young couple who loved each other and who grieved together at the deaths of their babies.

In Victorian times it was not unusual for young, unmarried men to visit prostitutes. Hughes believes Sam knew he had the disease. The PBS show portrays Isabella as figuring it out, eventually, after they started losing children.

By all the evidence, Sam's heart broke when Isabella died. But he still needed to make a living, and her book was his best-seller, so he hired other writers and continued to give his readers advice from the wise woman they had come to count on.

He continued to publish and update her book. By 1906 "Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management" was selling hundreds of thousands of copies every year in England. She also sold well in Canada and Australia.

Hughes credits Isabella Beeton with elevating the job of running a home. Because of Beeton, several generations of middle-class women came to see the significance of what they did. By teaching women to be organized and efficient, Hughes says, Mrs. Beeton prepared them to take their place in the larger world.