Friday 2 September 2011

Live Alone and Like It

I don't often talk that much about my DPhil research, because most of my time is spent reading books and articles that are either impossible to track down, or too prosaic to recommend. But after reading Marjorie Hillis' Live Alone and Like It (1936) for my upcoming chapter on childlessness and fantastic creation (oh yes) I thought I'd like to blog about it. But surely it would be too difficult to find? (thought I) So I Googled it, and it turns out that Virago reissued it in 2005 - and there are plenty of copies around, so I feel I can blog about it guiltlessly.

The book is non-fiction, and does what it says on the tin - it's a guide to the single girl. There were already rather more women than men in the UK before the First World War, but in the 1920s and '30s there were around two million 'surplus women', as they were labelled. The whole history of these women is detailed in Virginia Nicholson's Singled Out, which I've been reading for a while and will talk further about soon. I'm rather annoyed by the tacit assumption in both Nicholson's book and the contemporary guides that any single man could easily get married - I suspect life could be as difficult for bachelors as for spinsters - but certainly unmarried women proliferated at a rate higher than ever before in living memory.

I've read quite a few of these guides - some are maudlin, others are progressive, and everything in between. They agree on very little. The reason I wanted to write about Marjorie Hillis' Live Alone and Like It is because it is the most accessible for a modern audience. You don't need to be an unmarried woman in 1936 to find this a fascinating read, and what is more, a funny one. Hillis' tone is not hectoring or patronising, but quite witty and sensible. Whether or not you're on the look-out for a spouse, you might chuckle at this piece of advice:
But hobbies are anti-social now; modern men don't like to be sewn and knitted at; and the mere whisper that a girl collects prints, stamps, tropical fish or African art is, alas, likely to increase her solitude.
or this:
Clutter is now as out-of-date as modesty, and for just as good reasons.
or, without intending to cast aspersions against any bloggers (and glossing over my uninformed references to Gissing and Braddon yesterday), this:
Most people's minds are like ponds and need a constantly fresh stream of ideas in order not to get stagnant. The simplest way to accomplish this to is [sic] exchange your ideas (if any), with your friends and acquaintances, cribbing as many as possible from books, plays, and newspaper columns and passing them off as your own. Anyone who does this well is considered a brilliant conversationalist. If you do it extra well, you are a Wit.

There are sections on how to save money, how to furnish a home on a budget, and even what term to use to describe the unmarried woman (the term spinster is 'becoming rapidly extinct', apparently). Hillis also cheerfully lists the advantages of living alone, including this rather unlikely one, demonstrating how the times, they have a-changed:
You will be able to eat what, when, and where you please, even dinner served on a tray on the living-room couch - one of the higher forms of enjoyment which the masculine mind has not learned to appreciate.

All in all, there is quite a lot that still comforts or helps the single person - but for the most part Live Alone and Like It is an involving piece of social history, and also amusing in that wry, 1930s, almost Provincial Ladyesque manner. I found it useful for my research too, so that's a bonus. And I'll leave Hillis to offer the last piece of advice, as true now as it was in 1936:
For the truth is that if you’re interesting, you’ll have plenty of friends, and if you’re not, you won’t – unless you’re very, very rich.


  1. Can. Not. Wait. To. Read. This, (especially since I am prone to needlepointing at people, which is probably worse than knitting at them). (I just saw on Amazon that she wrote another book - Orchids on Your Budget - which looks delightful, too.

  2. I vaguely remember reading this in school alongside Sex and the Single Girl, though I have to admit that Helen Gurley Brown made a bit more of an impact on my sixteen year old self. But I think I'd certainly appreciate it more now! Also, love the cartoon!

  3. Thank you, I'm going to read this!

  4. Sounds such a good book to read. (for anyone actually).

  5. This is *such* a wonderful book. I bought it while I was at uni and it has travelled with me ever since. Whenever I'm feeling down, I just have to flick through these pages and then I feel inspired to wear tea-gowns, drink obscure cocktails and hold charming dinner parties in my two-room-apartment-with-no-maid. :-) She's got a delicious sense of humour, and some of her examples are a little archaic now, but the spirit of her advice is spot-on. A friend bought me Orchids On Your Budget a couple of years ago too, which is equally good - and appropriate reading for this new age of austerity...

  6. Did we ever need a term to describe unmarried anyone? I like your closing quotation, that is certainly still good advice!

    The Cat is back

  7. This sounds great, Simon - I must track it down. Incidentally I think the assumption that "any single man could easily get married" is true at the statistical level, at least in the UK - there's quite a bit in Martin Pugh's We Danced All Night about the marriage rate actually going up between the wars, despite the "surplus women". Although obviously individual stories won't necessarily conform to statistical evidence ...

  8. I really enjoyed Nicholson's Singled Out so will definitely be checking this out. I like your comment about men having a tough time too, especially since single women were also increasingly enjoying their freedom from family, duty, drudgery etc., and were probably thinking more about their choices too.

  9. Thanks for these, I'm looking forward to reading both. Happily for some of us, both of these books are available for the kindle in the U. S.

    Robin in Texas

  10. I'm so glad you did decide to share this one with us. It is indeed an interesting historical item, all those "surplus women" after WWI. I've been reading more WWI and just-after-WWI stuff (fiction and non) in the last year than ever before - still not lots, but this phenomenon is sort of close to the surface of my mind these days. So your post was well-timed. Thanks for the recommendation.

    (BTW, sort of related: I'm currently reading a pre-pub galley of Wade Davis's Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest. So far, pretty good WWI coverage and interesting topics...)

  11. Simon, I was truly tempted to post the url to your blog on Facebook just so I could add that paragraph beginning "Most people's minds are like ponds and need a constantly fresh stream of ideas..." (should have added more here). That paragraph almost describes Facebook activity, doesn't it? :-)

  12. Audrey - thanks for the tip about Orchids on Your Budget - that could be another charmer!

    Claire - thanks very much :) And I think you should definitely revisit - you might appreciate the humour more now.

    Moggy - great!

    Mystica - absolutely, I think anybody could find this interesting, if they have a taste for interwar literature.

    Sarah - how wonderful! I must get my own copies of these books - I just read it in the library. I do wonder if an equivalent has ever been written for men, that isn't just about beer and football... but I suppose a lot of this book applies to either gender.

    Peter - good question!

    Tanya - yes, I agree about statistics - but I do feel sorry for those men who didn't fit into the statistical norm! They must have felt even more like failures (if they felt that way at all) given how many single women there were.

    Sakura - I think the role of men has been really fluid since then - feminism has done so much for women, rightfully so, that men need the equivalent reassessment from our own ranks. Hmm...

    Robin - great! Let me know what you think.

    Julia - I've been fascinated by this period ever since I started reading grown-up books (!) - maybe a little too blinded to all other periods, but at least I have an area of expertise, I guess!

    Nancy - haha, very true! Feel free to post the url...

  13. This sounds wonderful! I loved the last quote too AND your favorite of yours yet!

  14. I just watched Daffy Duck's Fantasy Island, and the short with Foghorn Leghorn and Prissy from 1951 "Lovelorn Leghorn" had a book ironically called "Live Alone and Hate It".

    You can see it in the video below:


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