Ah, impostor syndrome – pernicious underminer of talented people everywhere. No matter how brilliant your marks are, no matter what professional coups you pull off, deep down inside you believe all compliments are lies, and that you are only one mistake from being ‘found out’. Infuriatingly, it’s the talentless meatheads lacking an iota of charisma who are virtually guaranteed never to feel a tickle of this dreaded paranoia. In fact, it is usually high-achievers who are afflicted with this treacherous condition. So how to deal with it? There’s one historical homemaker who perhaps ought to have felt impostor syndrome rather more keenly than most, but seems to have laughed in the face of her own ineptitude and achieved more in her short life than most of us can hope to over many years.

Think of Mrs Beeton and immediately an image comes to mind of a matronly lady in crinoline skirts, pudding bowl in hand, shouting at the servants and issuing draconian domestic decrees. And it’s true that in her famous Book of Household Management Mrs Beeton was fond of such guff as: “I have always thought that there is no more fruitful source of family discontent than a housewife’s badly-cooked dinners and untidy ways”, and “When a mistress is an early riser, it is almost certain that her house will be orderly and well managed. On the contrary, if she remain in bed till a late hour, then the servants, who, as we have observed, invariably acquire some of their mistress’s characteristics, are likely to become sluggards.” Lay off, Mrs B. Some of us need our lie-ins.

In fact, Isabella Beeton was a young, forward-thinking entrepreneur, translator, journalist and editor who – wait for it – was rubbish at cooking. Born in London, Izz was the eldest of twenty-one children. In 1856 she married the publisher Samuel Beeton and began to write articles for his monthly rag, the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine. Her first contributions were columns on ‘Cookery, Pickling and Preserving’, which proved a massive hit, even though she forgot to add flour to the recipe for her ‘Good Sponge Cake’ and had to print an apology the following month. In fact, Mrs Beeton nicked many of her recipes. Having been advised by her aunt that culinary expertise took years to develop, she cherry-picked the best recipes from the books around her, benefitting from the very lax copyright laws at the time. Mrs B. has been accused of plagiarism over the years but she did come up with one innovation – listing ingredients at the beginning of the recipe so the cook could have everything they needed in front of them from the off. (She didn’t mention measuring everything neatly into aspirational ceramics and Kilner jars, like on Bake Off, but we’re sure she would have approved.)

Portrait of Mrs Beeton © Bijou Karman

What’s extraordinary is that this dynamic, unconventional twenty-something with very few culinary skills grew into a brand name that is still a byword for homemaking perfection.”

Realising he had hot property on his hands, Isabella’s husband Sam, ever the opportunistic publisher, decided to release a companion publication, and Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management was born. It was a runaway bestseller and is still in print today, more than 150 years after publication. Its success lay in the fact that it was not just a book of two thousand recipes – it was also full of essays on domestic issues from menu-planning, to dealing with servants and child-rearing, and that evergreen essential, the ‘Natural History of Fishes’. More practically, there is even a chapter from a doctor on illnesses, and from a lawyer advising on land boundary disputes and the like. Although Isabella has come in for much criticism over the years, her book is admirably aimed at teaching families to be frugal, and about seasonality and thrift. Growing industrialisation meant that, for the first time, many women did not live near their relatives, and while they could play a pretty tune on the piano, they hadn’t a clue when it came to the complex demands of domestic organisation. Isabella compared running a household to commanding an army. (Perhaps we should substitute the cosy terms ‘Housewife’ and ‘Homemaker’ with ‘Domestic Administrator’ and ‘Director of Home Affairs’.) Mrs B. showed the muddled mistresses of her generation what to do.

Isabella died at the shockingly early age of twenty-eight, after contracting an infection during the birth of her fourth child. After her death her fame grew; her book was constantly updated and given as a wedding present, and it remains a fixture on people’s groaning cookery shelves even today. What’s extraordinary is that this dynamic, unconventional twenty-something with very few culinary skills grew into a brand name that is still a byword for homemaking perfection. So if you are suffering from impostor syndrome look to this lady, the original domestic goddess, even though she was anything but. She was an impostor, and she still styled it out; she understood that the path to success lies in taking risks, accepting your limitations and realising that your flaws are no barrier to being completely amazing. And next time you’re struggling at 7.45 a.m. trying to find some unladdered tights and your only other waterproof shoe, while downing your scalding cup of tea and answering emails on your phone, remember her key piece of lifehack advice: “a place for everything, and everything in its place.”

from What Would Boudicca Do?: Everyday Problems Solved by History’s Most Remarkable Women (Faber & Faber, £9.99)


Foley_Coates_420Elizabeth Foley and Beth Coates are editors based in London and the bestselling authors of Homework for Grown-Ups: Everything You Learnt at School and Promptly Forgot, as well as Advanced Homework for Grown-Ups, The Homework for Grown-Ups Quiz Book and Shakespeare for Grown-Ups. What Would Boudicca Do?, illustrated by Bijou Karman, is out now from Faber & Faber in hardback.
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Author portrait © Noor Sufi