This is a first in what I hope will be a monthly series of book reviews of classic advice/self-help literature. Since I am about to live alone again, after a year of living with a romantic partner and umpteen years of roommates, it seemed apt to pull out the 1936 bestseller Live Alone and Like It: A Guide for the Extra Woman by Marjorie Hillis. My copy is a 1936 first edition, as pictured, and has some extremely literal margin notes from someone who either bought it or received it as a gift (awkward) in 1951.
Let’s get some stuff out of the way first. Hillis is writing to a very specific audience: White women of a certain background who made up the audience for women’s magazines like Vogue, where she was an editor. Plucky shopgirls and office girls who have moved to New York, handsome women who are between husbands and who might tip the steward on a cruise ship extra to let him know they are looking for “a gay trip” (I assume this to mean “Please seat me next to that guy who looks like Cary Grant at mealtimes.”) This book is for people who believe in the power of lipstick, satin bed jackets, breakfast in bed, the cocktail hour, and that it is probably better to have both a husband and a “colored” maid (but if you have to do without you might as well make a cheerful go of it).
The sexist, classist, and racist assumptions are baked right into the pudding the way they were baked into the time she wrote it in and they way they are still baked into women’s magazines today (see Holly’s wonderful Cosmocking series for examples). In the chapter on friendship, Hillis reminds you that your friends and family “would find it a lot simpler if you’d acquired a husband instead of a desire to Live Your Own Life,” and they might not invite you to things as much because now you’re going to mess up their bridge parties. What I’m saying is, don’t come here looking for overthrow of the social order – the very first paragraph of the book states:
This book is no brief in favor of living alone. Five out of ten of the people who do so can’t help themselves, and at least three of the others are irritatingly selfish. But the chances are that some time in your life, possibly only now and then between husbands, you will find yourself settling down to a solitary existence.
And the very last sentence of the book suggests that if you get really good at living alone and figure out how to do it with grace and style in a way that makes yourself happy, perhaps you won’t have to do it for long (wink wink).
Which is insulting as hell, on many levels!
But, when you think of it, kind of great advice for single people who don’t want to be single for the long term – Get really good at living your own life and making yourself happy, which will make you more attractive to others. If you meet someone and fall in love, you’ll do so as a happy, complete person. And if you never meet someone and fall in love, you’ll still be a happy, complete, person.
Captain Awkward cannot argue with that! And this book is a delightful, witty, persuasive read and also a really fun historical document. For example, Hillis did not marry until she was 48 years old (and when she did many of her fans rioted because she was selling out the Spinsterhood). She was part of the army of “capable and courageous young women” who flocked to cities in the 1930s and who were “successfully facing, and solving, their economic problems, but managing all the while to remain preternaturally patient, personable, and polite about it.” And one of the ways that you overthrow the social order is to pretend that of course that is not what you are doing.
In Chapter 1, “Solitary Refinements,” Hillis’s first order of business is to say “Buck up, little camper!” She recognizes that the idea to live alone may not be your idea in the first place.
“A great many people take this step after a death, divorce, or some rearrangement of relationships that seems like a catastrophe. They are pretty sure to feel a little sorry for themselves, slightly expectant of sympathetic attention, and all to ready to have a chip on their shoulder. This is only human. Everybody feels sorry for herself (to say nothing of himself) now and then. But anyone who pities herself for more than a month on end is a weak sister and likely to become a public nuisance besides.”
She comes right out with what you need to do: “You have got to decide what kind of life you want and then make it for yourself.” And she has some Thoughts and Ideas about how to do that in the rest of the book. Let me sum up:
- Create a mental image of yourself as a “gay, interesting, and up-to-date person,” and strive to become that image.
- Don’t feel sorry for yourself.
- Don’t cultivate a sense of wounded entitlement. If you feel like relatives and friends and beaux are neglecting you, CALL THEM UP AND ASK THEM TO DO SOMETHING FUN.
- Make the first move in friendships and romance. If you meet a man you like at dinner, don’t wait for him to forget about you. Ask him round for a cocktail already! (Specifically what cocktails are covered at length in Chapter Nine: “A Lady and Her Liquor.”)
- Cultivate and nurture your friendships. Be a good listener.
- Hobbies: Get some. Preferably one that takes out into the world and one that keeps you at home.
- Travel. As mentioned before, tip the head dining steward well if you would like “a gay time.”
- If you can’t afford travel, be a tourist in your own city. A cool woman in 1936 should explore old junk shops and off-beat neighborhoods. She should go to “one prizefight, one radio recording, and one burlesque.”
- Read books, the news, go to lectures and plays, follow a few critics, stay up on current events and fashions.
- Dress well, and groom and pamper yourself. “Do have some evening clothes with swish.” Invest in small comforts such as “A glass of sherry and an extra special dinner charmingly served…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” for domestic chores. Above all, don’t get into the habit of thinking “It doesn’t matter because no one sees you.” That notion, “with the dull meals and dispirited clothes that follow in its wake, has done more damage than all the floods of springtime.”
- Don’t treat your living space as temporary – make it as charming and comfortable as you can afford.
- Plan your time. Give yourself time for solitude and reading.
- Save and invest money. Disabuse yourself of the idea that you will get married or be left money by a wealthy relative.
- Don’t sneer at self-improvement courses. She describes a somewhat amazing course in “Personal Adequacy” offered by a woman in New York City. Here’s how it works: You meet with this lady and tell her about yourself, “while she makes mental note of the things that seem wrong with you. A few days later, you are told to go see somebody else – a voice specialist or a fashion consultant or what-have-you, and you deliver another personal monologue, no doubt enjoying yourself thoroughly. After a few such sessions have been reported in full to the first interviewer and mulled over carefully, you are given a chart that tells you all the things that are wrong and also all the things that are right, and how to overcome the first and emphasize the second.” This reads to me like 1930s therapy, very practical because no one had money to spend endlessly dicking around about their feelings.
OMG, Bed Jackets! You need 4 of them: A warm comfortable one, a warm grand one for “special occasions,” a sheer cool one for summer mornings, and a lacy affair to dress up in.
Of course, the best chapters are full of the most period-specific stuff, like bed jackets, liquor, and whether you should have affairs. Ms. Hillis is annoyed with women who don’t understand how to drink or serve drinks, so she explains in detail about the 7 bottles you should buy (sherry, gin, Scotch, rye, French and Italian vermouth, and bitters) and how you should buy them. She suggests that you go to a reliable liquor shop and get the experts there to help you, and I feel like she’s invoking the great Miss Plumcake when she says: “If you go to a not so reliable shop, you will probably be sold a bargain, and bargains in liquor, like bargains in clothes, are only for Those Who Know. While you are still learning, never buy anything but the best.”
The chapter on sex, “Will You Or Won’t You?” is definitely a relic of it’s time, i.e., the time before reliable birth control and also when people were obviously having sex outside marriage (have you ever seen a single movie from the 1930s?) but the social expectation was that all Good Women were to be assumed virgins if they hadn’t been married and one could still develop A Reputation. Hillis advises discretion and respect for others’ privacy: “There is nothing about which people are so voluble as chastity applied to the other person, or so reticent as chastity applied to themesleves. Whether or not a woman has had her Moments, if she has a grain of common sense she keeps it to herself, since, if she has, most people would be shocked, and if she hasn’t, the rest would be superior.”
- Don’t worry about whether the neighbors gossip – let them talk!
- Wait until after you’re thirty, and don’t be a filthy husband-stealer.
- Keep on paying your own expenses.
- Women have more to lose than men. When things go wrong, The Woman Pays. (With pregnancy? I think this is what Hillis means when she says that the woman pays “in a thousand little shabbinesses and humiliations, in the almost inevitable bitter ending, and in nervous wear and tear.”) So she feels like she has to encourage you to walk the straight and narrow path, and keep so busy and amused that don’t feel that you’re missing out. However, she says “The sad truth is that whatever you decide, you’ll think you regret it. You’ll hate the shabby end of romance, and you’ll detest missing it altogether.”
- I know you were worried, but IT IS OKAY to entertain a man alone in your home while wearing pajamas, as long as they are “hostess pajamas” and not “sleeping or beach pajamas.” “Lounging” pajamas are also acceptable. Glad we cleared that up.
Probably my favorite chapter in the book describes the “Pleasures of a Single Bed.”
It is probably true that most people have more fun in bed than anywhere else, and we are not being vulgar. Even going to bed alone can be alluring. There are many times, in fact, when it’s by far the most alluring way to go.
Since you have to go to bed at least once every 24 hours, and you’re going to be doing that for as long as you live, why not make it fabulous? This involves:
- Glamour in decor and furnishings (plus a good reading lamp and a telephone close by).
- Put a mirror at the foot of your bed so you can see yourself when you sit up. “This is sometimes depressing, but it acts as a prompter when you feel yourself slipping.”
- A bell to ring for the maid, if you can afford to have one.
- Bed jackets (four!)
- A serious nighttime ritual of creams, haircare, tooth brushing, etc. “This is particularly advisable if you don’t want to keep on going to bed for the rest of your life, but you’d better do it, anyway.” Apparently “no schoolgirl complexion can survive alone and unaided” in the dust-filled air of big American cities.
- Don’t be a big baby about hearing weird noises in the next room and wake your relatives or beaux up in the middle of the night by calling them to rid you of imaginary burglars who would likely have completed their burgling by the time that person could show up anyhow.
Hillis is seriously into the idea on taking meals on a tray in bed – breakfast in bed should happen, like, every single day. Get up, take your shower, put on makeup, fix yourself your toast/juice/coffee/egg what have you on a tray with matching china/glassware, plump your pillows, and slide back in for 20 minutes to munch and read the paper. THEN get dressed and go to work. At night, after a long day, set yourself up with a nice dinner and a great book, or a good long gossip on the telephone. And for someone who claims she isn’t writing a manifesto on how you should live alone, she’s pretty clear about the advantages:
“…Think of the things that you, all alone, don’t have to do. You don’t have to turn out your light when you want to read, because someone else wants to sleep. You don’t have to have the light on when you want to sleep, because somebody else wants to read. You don’t have to get up in the night to fix somebody else’s hot water bottle, or lie awake listening to snores, or be vivacious when you’re tired, or cheerful when you’re blue, or sympathetic when you’re bored. You probably have your own bathroom all to yourself, too, which is unquestionably one of Life’s Great Blessings.”
Yup, Hillis totally buys into traditional gender roles where Wifely Duties include constant caretaking and being in a great mood all the time so that your husband doesn’t have to deal with any negative emotions, and then she reminds you how great it is not to have to put up with that bullshit under your own roof that you pay for yourself. Pretty cool for 1936.
I haven’t talked yet about the charming illustrations by Cipe Pineles, the first female art director of a major mass-market publication, or the Goofus & Gallant-like “Case Studies” at the end of each chapter that illustrate women doing it right (cheerful, industrious, fashionable, entertaining) and those who are doing it wrong (sad sacks who live in the past). Perhaps my favorite case study in the book comes in the Single Bed chapter. Dig if you will:
“Miss P. is a young lady of limited income, but unlimited ingenuity. She has a two-room apartment in Washington, which is a charming setting for her blonde beauty and which she uses to advantage. Unfortunately, the upkeep takes so much of Miss P.’s salary that she frequently finds herself in embarrassing situations…
Recently, an old school friend who lives in Chicago came to Washington for a two-day’s visit. It was plainly Miss P’s duty to entertain her in a manner quite beyond the momentary ability of her pocketbook. She was, also, a lady whom Miss P. wanted to impress, in return for a few high-hattings off boarding school days. Miss P., therefore, considered her resources carefully, turned the matter over in her mind, and–the lady’s visit occuring over a week-end–took to her bed.
From that vantage-point, she telephoned an effusive invitation. “I’m desolate,” she said, “that I can’t show you the town.” (And so she was.) “But do be an angel and come and have tea with me. I’m in bed, but not a bit contagious.”
When the guest arrived, she was ushered into Miss P.’s bedroom, in which the late afternoon sun filtered through white Venetian blinds and fell upon a bowl of roses on a low mirrored table. Miss P. herself, perfectly groomed, was propped against pillows, wearing an opalescent white satin nightgown with Alcenon lace and a shell-pink velvet bed-jacket. The blanket cover on her bed was shell-pink, too, with strips of lace.
During tea, which was impeccably served by a colored maid-in-for-the-afternoon, Miss P. was twice called on the telephone by beaux. This was a coincidence arranged by Miss P. only through great ingenuity.
When the guest left, practically wilted with envy, Miss P. reflected that the total expenditure had been two dollars for the maid, one dollar for the roses, and a very little extra for the tea–a well-spent investment–
…Miss P., incidentally, had a good rest.”
While full of RaceFail and a portrait of female friendships as ultimately competitive (a theme throughout the book – at one point Hillis recommends that if you live in crappy digs, you should only invite people who are worse off than you over so that they will be impressed and you can hold your head up!), how can you not salute the fictional Miss P.’s ingenuity and want to put on your best bed-jacket (The one made out of quilted silk-velvet in the color most flattering to you) and invite a frenemy to tea?
Verdict: A fun, light read and a window into another time. While I can’t back many of Hillis’s assumptions, I can’t fault the advice to be an engaged and engaging person.