Warren, Mrs. [Eliza]. How I Managed My House on £200 (One Thousand Dollars) a Year.

Boston: Loring, 1866.

There was an outpouring of household management manuals and similar how-to books in the mid-19th century to cater to the burgeoning middle class in Britain, especially for those young brides, like the author, who hadn’t the slightest notion or experience of how to run a household on a limited budget. Some, like Mrs. Beeton’s book, became the canon, while others, like this one, took a more homely, less authoritative approach. Because Eliza (or “Millie,” or “Minnie” — both names appear in her reported conversations) was left a widow after some eighteen years and then became a very successful housekeeper for another widow with somewhat more income, her own experiences must have taken place in at least the 1830s — the very dawn of the Victorian era.

She was certainly a lady, educated at home, but her own mother ran a tight domestic ship in whose operation she says she had no part, so when she married a young would-be lawyer out in the provinces (Berkshire, I think) — who apparently was never “robust” enough to actually practice his profession, relying instead on his small life income of £200 to support himself, his wife, and (eventually) two children — Eliza had to learn the hard way. The first year of her marriage, she overran her budget by £20 and they had to dip into their contingency fund. The second year, she did it again and they had to sell some of their furniture to pay off the tradesmen. It wasn’t that Eliza was swanning around in silk dresses or anything; she simply was letting the “trifles” get the better of her. She had a single servant (it was virtually mandatory that a family have at least one servant in order to consider itself middle-class) but the girl wasn’t well-trained — and Eliza didn’t know enough herself about cooking and cleaning to teach her. She eventually was rescued by an old school friend named Bertha who was a natural in matters of efficient management — today she would be high up in some global corporation’s power structure — and who undertook to instruct her friend on the realities of life, explaining in much detail how to make every penny count and why waste of any kind is a sin, even if you have sufficient money. (Don’t throw out those hard old bread crusts — swap them to the chicken farmer for sixpence-worth of eggs per week.) Eliza never spares her own sensibilities, either, describing at every turn just how ignorant and wrong-headed she had been. All of this makes an interesting story, both in the lessons taught and in the picture of the struggling segment of the middle class at its formative point. And Mrs. Warren had an eager audience of young women just like the panicked homemaker she had once been. This edition is a republished version for the American audience of the previous year’s British edition, which sold 65,000 copies.

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Published in: on 8 January 2011 at 10:59 am  Leave a Comment  
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