Plagiarising the work of others, leaving out vital ingredients and emotionally detaching from her abilities, HOLLY HUGHES reveals how the redoubtable Mrs Beeton is an unlikely role model …
It is a truth universally acknowledged: we live in an over-stimulated, over-populated, perpetually connected world in which we are never truly “off” and no job is ever truly “done”.There is always someone outdoing us – and taunting us about it from the self-flagellating ether of social media. It is little wonder, then, that 30 per cent of Irish employees are overly stressed in work while 70 per cent of us suffer from the modern phenomenon of impostor syndrome with most of these, of course, being women.
Inundated with feelings of inadequacy, dogged by the belief that any success that comes our way is a result of luck, PC tokenism or quota filling, and crippled with a constant fear of being unearthed as a fraudulent impostor, we are victims of a syndrome inherited from millennia of systemic misogyny and the constraints of impossible patriarchal ideals. We are bred to believe we are never good enough, and despite extensive achievements to the contrary, we continue to subscribe to this narrative of inadequacy no matter how many ceilings we break or ladders we climb. Thankfully, the biggest impostor of them all, the infamous and unconventional Mrs Beeton, offers us a Victorian cure for this modern ailment.
Fake it ’til you bake it
A 19th-century writer, editor, and journalist, Mrs Beeton was known for her bestselling tome Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, a bible filled with the secrets to becoming the perfect housewife, hostess, and chef. Fascinating, then, to learn that this Mrs Beeton – a name immortalised in the Oxford English Dictionary since 1891 as the generic term for “an authority on cooking and domestic subjects” – couldn’t cook. She lacked the only requirement needed to become a culinary household name and yet that was but a speedbump in her ascension as queen of Victorian cuisine. Recklessly plagiarising the work of others and stealing recipes from zealous readers which she would tweak and publish in her own fastidious style, Isabella only ever authored one of the recipes she has been celebrated, loved, and occasionally condemned for.
Impostor syndrome is founded on the nagging belief that we are simply not good enough and, at any moment, the fluke or tokenism that got us recognition will run out and we will be exposed for the frauds we are. While our feelings of deception are often without basis, Mrs Beeton’s guilt would have been well-placed and potent. If she was assailed by such a crisis of confidence, it was private and short-lived as she bustled around her husband’s publishing house, building a reputation and meticulous empire on savvy plagiarism and unruffled confidence. Her moral, while immoral, is clear and relentlessly hopeful: it is self-belief – however misguided or unfounded that may be – that decides our ability to succeed in this world. A fact sadly endorsed by some unfortunate world leaders and political movements today.
Brazen leg of lamb with a reduction of idealistic archetypes
Studies show that women are hesitant to apply for a job or promotion unless they meet 100 per cent of the criteria, while men breeze through applications even when they have a mere 60 per cent of the required skills. Only four per cent of CEOs are female, showing that, in terms of hierarchal power, male continues to be the norm, female the deviant. We are still, like every marginalised, excluded minority, subscribed to a patriarchal doctrine that tells us we are unwelcome, unworthy, or inadequate of a place at the table, a raised hand in a meeting, a name on a mahogany door.
Thus, our chances of professional success remain vastly slimmer than our male counterparts and involve both an internal and external battle at every level to be seen, heard, and considered. We are rarely just applying for a job or staking our claim for a promotion; we are overcoming a lifetime of being told we don’t belong, and overthrowing a system that has excluded us for centuries. We are not just a candidate, we are suddenly a representative of our gender, a sore thumb, a reluctant spokesperson, a quota-filler. With so much at stake, mediocrity is unthinkable and across-the-board excellence mandatory. Like any warrior preparing for battle, we feel we can only enter an often predetermined battle by being good at everything. Which means, as shown in the figure above, that too often we choose not to enter at all.
However, Isabella’s flamboyant plagiarism is proof that we don’t need perfection to succeed. Her success came in recognising everything she couldn’t do, and then outsourcing those skills from those who could. And yes, outsourcing is an optimistic euphemism for the merciless stealing of material. She was a born organiser, editor, and illustrious categoriser. Rather than devote energy into lamenting her lack of culinary prowess or attempting to spend the many years necessary improving it, she threw herself into what she could do, and let that be the focus of her success.
We can learn much from this clinical self-appraisal. As women, we often equate talent with value, proficiency with worth, and skills with a right to claim respect, love, and acceptance. Failure to immediately excel at a task we see as a personal failing, a rejection that tells us if we cannot be the best, then there is no point in even trying. Much as the Victorian housewife was deemed useless if she was unable to produce (male) offspring on demand or perfectly time the many awkward components of a roast dinner in line with her husband’s dining habits, we still equate our validity as competent humans with our ability to conform to impossible social ideals. The prevalence of this issue today is evidenced in the alarming fact that women are 1.5 times less likely than men to apply for a job if they’d previously been rejected for a comparable position. Leaning out is still more natural to us than leaning in.
Mrs Beeton’s ability to emotionally detach from her abilities, to shrewdly and ruthlessly analyse them in order to manoeuvre them for success, is a potent message for those of us floundering on the sidelines, waiting to become the best before entering the league. Her lesson is simple: assertion trumps talent and brazen is always better than best. She chose self-confidence over self-doubt and, if she can do it at a time when a simple commute to work caused outrage, shock, and disgust amongst her fellow male commuters, then surely we too can channel her courage into a pros and cons list and the bold audacity of pressing “apply”.
And for dessert – flourless Victoria sponge with a proof-is-in-the-pudding jus
We are always going to feel inadequate. Today’s world does not allow us to go too long without being reminded of everything we are not, everything we cannot do, everything we do not have. We cannot turn off the billboards, the Instagram posts, the high-flying perfectionists who make a point of having it all “together”. Yet, we can turn off the part of our brain that takes these assaults of aesthetic perfection as an attack on ourselves. We can change the internal monologue of “I can’t” or “I shouldn’t” into “I can” and
Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management was never about making the perfect trifle or what shade of taupe is all the rage. At its centre, it was about giving her lost, alienated, overwhelmed readers – most of whom were more girls than women – a toolkit to overcome their own sense of impostor syndrome as they took up the onerous mantle of “wife” and “homemaker”. It was about instilling confidence, self-belief, and knowledge into those who most needed it, reminding them that, despite the belying aesthetics of appearance, no one really has any idea what they’re doing. In Isabella’s case, the proof was in the literal pudding, having once published a recipe for a Victoria sponge cake without including the somewhat vital ingredient of flour.
This is her legacy – a beautiful metaphor reminding us that, even if we are lacking, even if we are missing that key ingredient that validates our right to belong, to be counted, to be seen, even if we are the exact impostor we are so petrified of being, we can still style our way to whatever we decide success to be. If it didn’t stop a Victorian upstart with no skills, qualifications, or qualms why should it stop you?