Sugar and spice and all things nice: Rettigova's guides for girls

Magdalena Dobromila Rettigova

"Giving children bread and butter, fruit and other treats between meals is ill advised. Firstly, their stomachs are not always strong enough to eat and digest everything, which causes them to fall ill - and secondly they come to develop a sweet tooth; the undesirable consequences of which are far reaching."

Magdalena Dobromila Rettigova was born as Magdalena Artmannova in 1785. The 'Dobromila' was a flourish she added later and means 'lover of goodness'. Her father died when she was seven which made things difficult. The family moved from the countryside to Prague and had to work hard to keep afloat. Rettigova's mother was incredibly strict, and her early years read a bit like something out of Cinderella. Monika Koldova is one of the librarians at the National Museum in Prague, she has just organized an exhibition on Magdalena Rettigova, and tells me something of her upbringing:

"She helped out around the house, her mother was very strict. She didn't play with her, but instead taught her how to do the housework. There is a story that on her fifth birthday, Magdalena got given a pair of stockings and some needles and wool, and her mother told her that now she could do her knitting by herself. And then she recounts in her autobiography how on her sixth birthday, her uncle gave her a doll and her mother told her that it was shameful that such a big girl was playing with a doll, and so she burnt it."

Magdalena was charged with most of the household tasks and took great pride in doing them well. As she grew older, she started to write guides for girls on how to do these tasks properly. She thought it was important for young women to fulfill their domestic duties - and she also thought it was important for girls to read books.

At the ripe old age of twenty, I suppose that I am getting a bit past it. In Rettigova's time, people might even be speculating that I was, shock horror, unmarriable. Perhaps I need to pay more attention to Rettigova's behavioural guides. This week I am going to try and live by them as much as is humanly possible 150 years on. Not, I must make clear, with the specific intent of 'snaring' myself a husband. Instead, Rettigova was writing these guides with an audience of around my age in mind. If I follow her principles as closely as possible for a week - then perhaps I will be able to understand more just how life was for a middle-class young woman a century and a half ago.

So, in her treatise 'Mlada hospodynka v domacnosti, jak sobe pocinati ma, aby sve i manzelovy spokojenosti dosla' - or 'On how a young housewife should behave, in order to ensure marital happiness' - Rettigova gives prime importance to order. As someone with yesterday's socks strewn over the bathroom, and the week-old remainders of this and that in my fridge, fear was struck into my heart when I read:

"At the core of good housekeeping is order; in everything, from the very small to the very big. Well ordered cooking and washing and so forth are absolutely essential right down to the smallest trifle. And just as the devil finds work for idle hands, it can be said that unhappiness takes root in scenes of disorder. Mankind is not born with an innate sense of cleanliness; it must be learnt with difficulty."

And it was with great difficulty that I whipped out the multi-purpose cleaner and washed down every surface in my house. Maybe it was just the fumes, but Rettigova was right - I did feel strangely good afterwards. With the house looking spotless, the next task was getting myself into shape.

"A housewife's clothes must always be clean and orderly, no matter whether they are fancy or plain. The only important thing is that they are not dirty or ripped and are carefully arranged. Some individuals, particularly young and pretty females, are in the habit of walking around until midday in their old slippers and petticoats, or in some old and dirty slip with uncombed hair. It is through such conduct that a wife comes to displease her husband, he is disgusted and it is no surprise when in time his love for her grows cold and dries up."

Out go my ripped jeans, and in comes a new, fiendish looking hairbrush. I have been resisting starting this part of my transformation. I always attached a certain chic to looking like the example that Rettigova gives of a fallen woman. But I must take my task seriously and scrub up.

With that done, I've nothing left but to master the art of cuisine. This was Rettigova's specialty, but will it be mine?

"The husband that truly loves his wife will find the food prepared by her own hand more delicious than that prepared by the servants. Thus I advise every young housewife to prepare her own food, bearing in mind that; not only will the food taste better to her after she has put effort into making it - but also she will derive the satisfaction of her husband savouring the food that she has made. I would also advise everyone who in their days as a young woman undervalued the necessity of cooking and thus neglected to learn - be it through fault of their own or inconvenience of circumstance - to buy my cookbook 'Domaci kucharka' - or 'Home Cookbook'."

It is for this book that Rettigova is best remembered for today, and this year it is celebrating its bicentenary. The majority of its recipes would be good for people on the Atkins diet, and there is a lot of plucking and gutting involved. On the other hand, these recipes are so delicious that they are still made today, and the book is still in circulation. Monika Koldova again, on the book's legacy:

"At first she published books of short stories for young people. No one knows whether she wanted to publish a cook book or not, and whether she assumed that everyone must already know how to cook. But she was convinced that these recipes were good enough to be written down and published. One of the benefits of this book was that it widened the range of dishes that Czech cuisine composed of, before it was always the same foods being served up. So it varied the menus of Czech townspeople, and even some Czech villagers. But first and foremost, the cookbook was written in Czech, and very good Czech too."

In Prague, there is a restaurant dedicated solely to Magdalena Rettigova's cuisine. On my quest to become a young lady of distinction, I paid it a visit. Head chef, Jiri Stursa talked me through a recipe or two; and one of the owners, Karel Roudnicky, told me how Rettigova's recipes were made today:

"Magdalena Dobromila Rettigova's recipes can only be cooked today with some modifications. At the time when Magdalena Rettigova was alive, they didn't use any spices, they used a few herbs. There was no tomato ketchup and no fridges, and all this means that today we have to prepare Rettigova's recipes in a different way."

So now, quite literally, the proof is in the pudding. I invited an unsuspecting victim over for supper - Rettigova style. It was Palacinky, or traditional Czech pancakes on the menu. Here is what he had to say:

"I usually don't cook pancakes myself, sometimes my mother makes them, my grandmother does so more often. But today it was really something different, it was excellent."

But I originally said that this project was not about bagging myself a man, and I was telling the truth. At the end of my Rettigova styled week, I feel very tired and slightly inadequate - after all, I know all the corners that I cut and just how superficial my transformation was. Neither this, nor lent has stopped me from biting my nails for example.

Rettigova didn't naturally have all of the virtues she advocates in her discourse - she did say that 'cleanliness had to be learnt', after all. But I don't doubt is that she constantly strived to be virtuous. My week under Rettigova's posthumous tutelage has made me realize that this is a very hard thing to do. All I can say is she puts Martha Stewart to shame.

Books for this programme supplied by Shakespeare and Sons.