Saturday 14 February 2015

Live Alone and Like It: Marjorie Hillis' 1936 advice to single women

After the horror of that was the advice offered on how to dress to find a husband, here are some vintage words that might actually bring comfort. They come from Live Alone and Like It, a book intended to be "a guide for extra women", offering tips for solo dwelling. Written by US Vogue journalist Marjorie Hillis, the book became a bestseller on its original release in 1936 – and I think did pretty well on its rerelease in 2005.

That might be because – sadly – the hectoring on what women should/shouldn’t be doing is still very much a part of everyday life. In contrast, Hillis’ advice still seems refreshingly sensible. As she says herself, the book is ‘no brief in favour of living alone’, but it does suggest ways to make the most of your situation, whether “the pleasures of a single bed”, or a “new and spicy book” to occupy an evening in. No sympathy is given to wallowers, or those feeling sorry for their situation. Although Hillis may be kind to the single woman, she is also bossy. While the living alone may not be your choice, the liking it – according to Hillis – very much is.

Here are ten of my favourite pieces of her advice on living alone:

1. “The basis of successful living alone is the determination to make it successful … You have got to decide what kind of a life you want and then make it for yourself.”

2. “Do go in for cosmetics in a serious way. Not any old cream, but the right creams. The right coiffure too, and the right nail-polish, and all the other beauty tricks that make you feel elegant. This is the kind of pampering that pays.

 “There are other good kinds: a glass of sherry and an extra special dinner charmingly served on a night when you’re tired and all alone; bath salts in your tub and toilet-water afterward; a new and spicy book when you’re spending an evening in bed; a trim little cotton frock that flatters you on an odd morning when you decide to be violently domestic. The notion that it 'doesn’t matter because nobody sees you’ with the dull meals and dispirited clothes that follow in its wake, has done more damage than all the floods of springtime.”

3. “One of the great secrets of living alone successfully is not to live alone too constantly. A reasonably large circle of friends and enemies, whom you can see when you want to, and will often see you when you don’t want to, is an important asset. Anybody can acquire it, but it takes a little doing … If you haven’t any contacts, put your hat right on and go out and start making them … Be a Communist, a stamp collector or a Ladies’ Aid Worker if you must, but for heaven’s sake, be something.”

4. “It’s a good idea to divide your time intelligently into hours spent alone and hours spent in entertainment. Both should be taken in moderation, and balanced rations are best … Hermits and other self-sufficient people may be geniuses (we doubt it) and contribute greatly to the scientific knowledge of the world, but they contribute practically nothing to its entertainment and have a very dull time themselves. Most people’s minds are like ponds and need a constantly fresh stream of ideas in order not to get stagnant.”

5. “You must keep an open mind about what you read and where you go. Favourite authors and one favourite movie house are all very well in moderation, but they can become old-lady habits if you don’t watch out.”

6. “A reasonable amount of travel ought, of course, to be listed among the necessities. (An unreasonable amount if you can manage it.) If you don’t agree with this, there is something wrong with you, and you should see a doctor or a minister or at least read a few travel books and folders. All normal people should get wrought up now and then over the fact that there are wild orchids in Brazil that they may never see, and temple bells in Mandalay that they may never hear, and beautiful Balinese maidens and incredible Tibetan Lamaseries that they are likely to miss altogether.”

7. “Your setting, if you live alone, matters much more than if you had a husband or even a lover. And your standards of living should be about ten points higher than if you lived with somebody else. The woman who treats herself like an aristocrat seems aristocratic to other people and the woman who is sloppy at home inevitably slips sometimes in public.”

8. “Of course, the civilised place for any woman to have breakfast is in bed … For you and me who live alone and whose early mornings are uncomplicated by offspring, farm-hands and even husbands, bed is the place.”

9. “We are all for as much glamour as possible in the bedroom. The single bedroom as well as the double one. If the most respectable spinsters would regard their bedrooms as places where anything might happen, the resulting effects would be extremely beneficial … We can think of nothing more depressing than going to bed in a washed-out four-year-old nightgown, nothing more bolstering to morale than going to bed all fragrant with toilet-water and wearing a luscious pink satin nightgown, well-cut and trailing.”

10. “You probably have your bathroom all to yourself too, which is unquestionably one of Life’s Great Blessings. You don’t have to wait till someone finishes shaving, when you are all set for a cold-cream session. You have no-one complaining about your pet bottles, no one to drop wet towels on the floor, no one occupying the bathtub when you have just time to take a shower. From dusk to dawn, you can do exactly what you please, which, after all, is a pretty good allotment in this world where a lot of conforming is expected of everyone.”

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