The Secret Life of Mrs. Beeton (review)

Nowhere near as chic as Martha Stewart, she was more the Betty Crocker of her day: Mrs. Beeton, whose eponymous 1861 guide to running a household was a smash hit among Victorian wives. But Mrs. Beeton was not the stout, stolid matron her publisher — her husband, Samuel, a magazine entrepreneur — led their readers to believe, and here we have the true (or mostly true, based on well-founded speculation) story. With a nifty panache, this BBC drama, which aired in May on PBS’s Masterpiece Theater, gives us a feisty, feminist Mrs Beeton (the delightful Anna Madeley), a clever young woman bored by housekeepery who convinces her husband (JJ Feild: Ruby in the Smoke) to let her contribute to his magazine for proper ladies. Eventually, her frustration with the very honest complaints and questions about the job of “wife” their readers write in with prompts the creation of the now famous book… even as the life of the real Mrs. Beeton behind it continually fails to meet the fantasy of domestic tranquility she creates. (Samuel, for one, doesn’t uphold his end of the marriage bargain, spreading his philandering charm among London’s ladies of the evening.) Mrs. Beeton’s story, in the end, reveals more of the unspoken underside of Victoria society than we might have expected from Betty Crocker — this is one costume drama that franker and darker than you might expect. (As is usually the case with PBS releases, the DVD is devoid of extras.) [buy at Amazon]

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