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Before Jane Austen and Lord Byron…Maria Rundell

What does a relatively unknown widow named Maria Rundell have in common with the likes of Lord Byron, Charles Darwin, and Jane Austen? All were published by prosperous publisher John Murray. And it was Rundell, rather than any of these other famous figures, who made Murray’s fortune with her wildly popular cookbook, New Systems of Domestic Cookery (1805).

An Unlikely Celebrity Chef

Born in 1745, Rundell was 61 when Murray published New Systems of Domestic Cookery, but she’d never intended to publicly publish the book at all. A surgeon’s widow, Rundell had simply collected recipes, remedies, and household advice for her three daughters. She gave the collection to Murray, an old family friend who immediately recognized the commercial promise of Rundell’s manuscript. After all, it had been sixty years since Hannah Glasse had written The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy, and forty years since Elizabeth Raffeld’s The Experienced English Housekeeper.  Neither of these offered the abundance of home remedies that Rundell had included–always welcomed by women who would try just about anything to avoid the embarrassment of examination by male doctors.

Along with those remedies, Rundell offers plenty of other advice. She urges parents to keep their daughters away from “the delusional scenes of pleasure presented by the theatre and other dissapations.” And she reminds wives of their role in creating a safe, happy home for their husbands, noting that the home should be “the sweet refuge of a husband fatigued by intercourse with a jarring world.” Luckily for her readers, Rundell includes copious tips for creating that refuge. Indeed, Rundell told readers how to do everything from making calf’s foot broth to entertaining guests at a dinner party. Her most valuable were certainly tips on “principles of economy.”

American-Domestic-CookeryRundell’s cookbook would exceed even Murray’s optimistic expectations; there were 65 editions between 1805 and 1841. The book made its way to America and was translated into German. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography calls A New System of Domestic Cookery “the earliest manual of household management with any pretensions to completeness.” Though Alan Davidson argues in The Oxford Companion to Food that there is little to remark in A New System of Domestic Cookery (save, perhaps, one of the earliest English recipes for tomato sauce), the book became a household name virtually overnight. Why was it so successful? In addition to its incredible scope, A New System of Domestic Cookery was one of the first books of its kind that wasn’t aimed at servants. Rundell billed it as essential to “modern” middle-class housewives, vastly increasing her potential (and, it turns out, actual) readership.

John Murray’s Friendship and Fortune

When Rundell first presented family friend and publisher John Murray with her manuscript, she certainly had no thoughts of remuneration. At first, the two maintained cordial relations. But Rundell was an opinionated woman, often complaining of her editors and publishers. She complains that one editor introduced “strange language” into a new edition, even saying “In sober English, the second issue of DC has been miserably prepared for the press.” Murray himself soon bore the brunt of Rundell’s displeasure–though perhaps not without some merit. He fully took advantage of Rundell’s generosity and made quite a fortune from her work. Indeed, when Murray bought the lease to a home on Albemarle Street, he used the copyright of A New System of Domestic Cookery as part of the surety–all while holding Rundell to her word about not wanting remuneration.

By 1807, the relationship between Rundell and Murray had grown strained. Though she never said it outright, it’s likely that Rundell was frustrated she didn’t share the book’s profits with Murray. In 1808, Murray did make a gesture, offering Rundell 150 pounds. Rundell replied, “I never had the smallest idea of any return for what I considered a free gift to one I had long regarded as my friend.” Six years later, Rundell would accuse Murray not only of neglecting the book, but also of hindering sales–a seemingly outlandish accusation, given that the book had made Murray’s fortune.

Over the years Rundell had grown increasingly dissatisfied with multiple aspects of DC‘s publication–she said that one editor had made “some dreadful blunders such as directing rice pudding seeds to be kept in a keg of lime water, which rather was mentioned to preserve eggs in” and argued that “in sober English, the second issue of DC has been miserably prepared for the press.” It’s no small wonder then, that in 1821, Rundell took an improved version of the book to Murray’s rival publisher Longman’s. A bitter fight ensued…so bitter and so public, in fact, that the Lord Chancellor had to intervene and order the former friends to settle the matter privately. They finally reached an agreement in February 1823: Murray paid Rundell 2,100 pounds of “good lawful money.”

But all the while, Rundell’s name had never appeared on the cookbook. Her role wasn’t revealed until after her death in 1828 at age 83. Murray, who maintained publication rights for her book, took advantage of the opportunity to point out what a curmudgeon Rundell had been. The book had always included an advertisement stating that the author received “no emolvment for it.” When Murray bulked up the book with Anglo-Indian recipes and republished it in 1841, he added a footnote that read, “The authoress, Mrs. Rundell, sister of the eminent jeweler on Ludgate-Hill, was afterward induced to accept the sum of Two Thousand Guineas from the Publisher.”

 

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This entry was posted on November 27, 2013 by in Food and Literature and tagged , , .
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