The Heroine of the Cookbook Story

By Rachel Rich

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Every cookbook tells a story about itself, and the imagined reader it addresses is the heroine of that story. In the nineteenth century, following recipes meant embarking on a quest for respectability, stability and family happiness. The author offered guidance, and the reader was warned of the perils of leaving the path of good housekeeping. From start to finish, cookbooks in the nineteenth century had a fairly consistent tone… and a story that was repeated time and again. The introduction was where the reader—the protagonist—was introduced to herself through the eyes of the author-narrator.

Mrs Beeton’s introduction of the central character may the most famous, but it is not the only one. The heroine of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management is introduced as ‘the commander of an army’ and ‘the leader of an enterprise’. But others had already got the idea that the main character in the story of the cookbook played a role of national significance. As early as 1803, John Armstrong was placing the women of Britain centre stage in the success of the nation:

To the Young Females of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, This Work is most respectfully inscribed, as a new, safe, and pleasant Guide to the purest and most lasting sources of happiness, and which essentially depends on the just performance of the various Duties of their Sex, whether as Servants, Daughters, Wives, Mothers, or Mistresses of Families.[1]

Others were similarly confident about the importance of the reader, and the task she was undertaking in following the instructions which the author could provide. In 1837, one wrote:

The Collection of Domestic Receipts now presented to the public could not have been formed in any age but the present. The wisdom of this age has been to bring science from her heights down to the practical knowledge of every-day concerns’ and the number or its inventions and discoveries have kept pace with the increasing wants of man.[2]

Eliza Acton entrusted the heroine of her story with no less than the fate of civilization:

it is of the utmost consequence that the food which is served at the more simply supplied tables of the middle classes should all be well and skilfully prepared, particularly as it is from these classes that the men principally emanate to whose indefatigable industry, high intelligence, and active genius, we are mainly indebted for our advancement in science in art, in literature, and in general civilization.[3]

After carefully conveying the importance of her task to the reader, it was now the job of the author to explain the extent to which contemporary women were failing to become the heroines imagined by the author, thus introducing the possibility of adversity and defeat into the story.

Young women utterly ignorant and careless of domestic duties often think themselves fully qualified to undertake the duties and responsibilities of married life, while at the same time regarding it as derogatory to their dignity to cultivate knowledge on which, unless their husbands are very wealthy, the happiness of their homes must necessarily depend.[4]

In warning women of the adversity they faced, without the help of their cookbooks, Mrs Warren uttered this rousing cry:

Diligently and zealously learn and practise every domestic duty and every feminine accomplishment…and no longer will they say, “We cannot marry, our incomes will not suffice.” [5]

The recipes, then, formed the denouement. Once the tension was set up in the introduction, juxtaposing the importance of domestic management against the price of failure, the need for one more cookbook might seem obvious. But in case it was still an open question, many writers troubled themselves to impress upon the reader how different their own book was, and how important. Miss Renny, who’s What to do with Cold Mutton offered solutions for the use of leftovers, offered this explanation:

It may be thought unnecessary to add another to the already numerous list of books upon Cookery; books as various in their degree of excellence as in price. But this little Work does not profess to teach “the whole Art of Cookery:” it simply aims at supplying a want often felt by the young and inexperienced mistress of a household, where a moderate income, rather than position, renders economy advisable; and who, accustomed to every luxury and comfort in her father’s house, is yet ignorant of the art by which such culinary results are attained, and would gladly see her husband’s more modest table as well ordered, though by more simple means.[6]

The heroine of Miss Renny’s book is a young woman of modest means, who is willing to do what it takes to make a go of it: a true British heroine in the age of self-help and social mobility.

Every cookbook situates its imagined reader within the story of the recipes it holds. In the nineteenth century, cookbooks offered a fairly consistent message about the importance of domesticity to the nation’s success, always placing that story at the edge of the dark, looming clouds of the ruin that awaited women who would not follow the rules.


[1] J. Armstrong, The Young Woman’s Guide to Virtue, Economy and Happiness, Newcastle: Mackenzie and Dent, c.1803. n.p.

[2] Anon. The New Family Receipt Book London: John Murray, 1837. p. vii.

[3] E. Acton, Modern Cookery, For Private Families. London: Longman, Green, Longman and Roberts, 1861. p. viii.

[4] A. H. Miles, ed. A Look Inside: A Daily Household Guide. London: John Heywood, c. 1898. p. 118.

[5] Mrs Warren, How I Managed my Household on Two Hundred Pounds a Year. London: Houlston and Wright, 1864. p. iv;

[6] Anon [Miss Renny], What to do with Cold Mutton. London: Richard Bentley & Son, 1887. p. 111


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