This post is contributed by Maria Damkjær, Post-Doctoral Fellow at the University of Copenhagen.
[Read part one here]
In this number, Bella Wilfer tries and fails to cook fowl. Returned home to visit her parents, she pins an apron and bib to her ‘pretty figure’ and proceeds, under her mother’s reluctant tutelage, to get it all wrong:
Persisting, Bella gave her attention to one thing and forgot the other, and gave her attention to the other and forgot the third, and remembering the third was distracted by the fourth, and made amends whenever she went wrong by giving the unfortunate fowls an extra spin, which made their chance of ever getting cooked exceedingly doubtful. But it was pleasant cookery too. (Book III, Chapter IV)
When cookery fails in mid-century print culture, it usually serves as a cautionary tale. In the 1851 conduct book Home Truths for Home Peace: Or, Muddle Defeated, a dinner of burnt chops and underdone potatoes on cold plates is the natural culmination to a visit in a chronically mismanaged household. A failed meal is a symptom of ‘baneful influences’ which will inevitably ‘banish household comfort, and deaden intellect,’ according to the author (M. B. H., 28).
Victorian readers of household manuals were repeatedly assured that dinner was the single most ‘momentous question’ facing the young housewife, and the cultural weight of it was enormous (Philp, 13). In the stupendously bestselling Beeton’s Book of Household Management (first published 1859-1861 in monthly numbers), we learn that ‘the nation which knows how to dine has learnt the leading lesson of progress’ (Beeton, 905). Learning how to cook is a question of the future of civilization itself, Isabella Beeton assures her readers.
Domestic manuals at mid-century tend to set up stark contrasts between competence and failure. The progression from inexperience to experience is rarely described. Although Isabella Beeton herself recognizes the daunting nature of some household tasks, she emphasizes how easy they are to learn:
A sucking-pig seems, at first sight, rather an elaborate dish, or rather animal, to carve; but by carefully mastering the details of the business, every difficulty will vanish; and if a partial failure be at first made, yet all embarrassment will quickly disappear on a second trial. (Beeton, 399)
The idea that one can learn to carve a suckling pig by doing it twice is a prime example of the blithe confidence that inspires most of Beeton’s Book of Household Management. Defeatism did not sell.
This makes Bella Wilfer’s charming struggles so much more surprising. Dickens’s other heroines all had an instinctive understanding of housework – be it Esther Summerson in Bleak House or Lucie Manette in A Tale of Two Cities. Minor characters, like Caddy Jellyby in Bleak House, may bungle initially and learn from their mistakes, but aspiring heroines were never even allowed access to the learning curve. Poor Dora in David Copperfield is unredeemingly inept at her household chores, never prospering in a single lesson in her short married life. Failure, in Dora’s case, did not lead to mastery, but to defeat.
When Bella’s roasted fowls turn out inedible, she and her father engage in a little ‘supplementary cookery’ with the gridiron. The cookery in this instalment of Our Mutual Friend turns housework into improvisation. Bella is making it up as she goes along, all with exquisite charm, innocence and enthusiasm:
‘But what,’ said Bella, as she watched the carving of the fowls, ‘makes them pink inside, I wonder, Pa! Is it the breed?’ ‘No, I don’t think it’s the breed, my dear,’ returned Pa. ‘I rather think it is because they are not done.’
In this novel, domestic fiction takes a turn towards recognition of the difficulties facing the inexperienced housekeeper – not to mention the difficulties of the as-yet-insufficiently middle-class one. Household practices like formal dinners, training of servants and tasteful consumption were not easily decoded by those who had only recently reaching middle-class status; but the correct performance of such practices were always described, dauntingly, as wholly crucial to bourgeois identity. Failed dinners were associated with failed lives, all mapped out in didactic fiction, advice literature and popular novels. A heroine was often someone with an innate understanding of the mysteries of housekeeping, and who needed no instruction in these matters. When Bella plays at cooking, she distinguishes herself from all the heroines who effortlessly run their homes like clockwork. The domestic sphere, Our Mutual Friend acknowledges, is produced through trial and error.
Isabella Beeton, Beeton’s Book of Household Management in 24 parts (London: S. O. Beeton, 1859-1861)
M. B. H., Home Truths for Home Peace, Or, Muddle Defeated: A Practical Inquiry into what Chiefly Mars or Makes the Comfort of Domestic Life. Especially Addressed to Young Housewives. (London: Effingham Wilson, 1851)
[Robert Kemp Philp], The Practical Housewife: By the Editors of the Family Friend (London: Ward and Lock )
To be continued…