‘Mrs. Beeton’ sure can cook
English icon who pioneered modern recipes and homemaking, and led a tragic life, comes to PBS.
A lively biographical film about the woman who might be called the Mother of the Modern Recipe, “The Secret Life of Mrs. Beeton” arrives here Sunday night as the latest offering of PBS’ “Masterpiece Theatre.” The revelation the title promises won’t be much of a tease to most American viewers — who won’t know Mrs. Beeton from Mrs. Butterworth — but in England she’s been an icon of the domestic arts for a century and a half: Her 1861 “Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management” was for years a kind of standard encyclopedia of cookery, manners and home healthcare, and it is still in print today, in various versions and revisions, both as a historical curiosity and practical handbook.
The common thing now seems to be to refer to her as a 19th century Martha Stewart or Nigella Lawson, and this is true not only in the sort of help she offered but also in the fact that she was a publishing phenomenon and a walking brand.
It was Beeton’s inspiration to conceive of the homemaker as a “commander,” and the assurance in her writerly voice is surely what has kept her book alive through the ages. But perhaps her greatest gift to posterity was to render recipes in more “scientific,” standardized and practical terms. “My book shall list all the ingredients from the outset,” she declares. If, as eureka moments go, this is not exactly Madame Curie (as played by Greer Garson) discovering radium, its effect on ordinary life is arguably the greater.
Whether the film accurately portrays the real Isabella Beeton — and who can say? — or even any Victorian woman of her remarkable type, it’s an engaging portrait of energy and youth and love in the face of woe. Beeton’s life was short and not without hardship — she endured a series of miscarriages, stillbirths and the deaths of two young children — and director Jon Jones does a good job at reconciling sometimes rapidly conflicting tones; he’s made what might be called a tragic romantic comedy.
We first meet Isabella (Anna Madeley) regarding her own funeral, and she continues throughout the story as a fourth-wall-breaking narrator, which both smooths the film’s episodic turns and takes a little of the sting out of her early death (though Madeley, who is something beyond excellent and reason enough to watch, ensures that you will still hurt when it happens).
Short animated passages, based on what might be her book’s original illustrations, do triple service of lightening the tone, giving us a taste of Beeton’s original prose and framing the action.
Working from Kathryn Hughes’ recent biography “The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton,” screen- writer Sarah Williams takes as fact the circumstantial suggestion that Sam Beeton (JJ Feild, “To the Ends of the Earth”) contracted syphilis, which he passed to his wife. This introduces a handy note of conflict and dark irony into the proceedings, yet the film is most convincing when representing the conjugal cooperation of a repeatedly troubled — one might even say doomed — couple nevertheless united by physical attraction, intellectual sympathy and the ability to work together. (“Two geniuses in one bed,” Sam says. “A very rare occurrence.”) But dying from love is also an appropriately modern theme, and the film makes hay from it while managing not to moralize.
Jones does a lot with a little — there is less on screen than seems to meet the eye. The cast is small but choice and includes Anna Chancellor (“M15”) and the seemingly ubiquitous Jim Carter as Anna’s not particularly understanding parents. And the film is throughout lovely to behold, for its design and for its photography (by Ian Moss), which in its creamy palette, shallow focus and spot lighting at times suggests the look of a modern shelter magazine. Appropriately enough.
GENIUS IN HER ERA: Anna Madeley plays Isabella Beeton in the “Masterpiece Theatre” production.