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.