Does advice for the single women of 1936 have any bearing today? Cazz Blase reviews Marjorie Hillis’ guide to independent living
My attention was originally drawn to Marjorie Hillis’ book Live Alone and Like It by a Radio 4 adaptation in 2002. Put together by Mary ‘The Archers’ Cutler, the radio version used chunks of the book, but was also part speculation as to how the book had come to be written in the first place, and the combination was intriguing, entertaining, enjoyable and uplifting enough to make me want to find out more.
Hillis, (1889-1971), worked for Vogue for over 20 years, according to Virago Press, beginning there as a captions writer and working her way up to become assistant editor. As the publisher put it: “She was one of a growing number of independent, professional women who live alone by choice.” This book, which was number eight in the bestsellers list for 1936, was written as a guide for the ‘extra woman’ or ‘bachelor ladies’ who, after the book’s release, inevitably became known as ‘live-aloners’. Although it was written in 1936, some things, it appear, never change. Which is possibly why Virago re-published it in 2005, adorned with a suitably pastel pink, chick-lit style cover.
As Frank Crowinsheild wrote in the original introduction to the book: “We have witnessed, during recent years, the mustering of an entirely new kind of army, a host of capable and courageous young women, who are not only successfully facing, and solving, their economic problems, but managing all the while to remain patient, personable and polite about it.” Or, as Hillis herself says: “The old-fashioned notion that single women are objects of social charity was killed in the war.”
The book is written as a combination of practical advice and case studies of other ‘live-aloners’, which are mixed together in short, easy-to-digest and cheerfully written chapters. Chapter one, called ‘Solitary Refinement’, focuses on adjusting to living alone, whereas chapter two, ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ outlines a series of strategies whereby single women can encourage respect, rather than pity. Chapter three, ‘When A Lady Needs A Friend’, concentrates on cultivating friendships. Despite its title, the chapter ‘Pleasures Of A Single Bed’ is not concerned with sex, but chapter eight, ‘Will You Or Won’t You?’ is, and also with morality. Perhaps the two quaintest, and possibly most dated, chapters are nine and 10, on booze and food respectively, but they are a must for anyone wanting to know how to make old-fashioned cocktails. Less frivolously and most realistically chapter 11 is concerned with money, savings and being thrifty, whereas 12 is on etiquette. Surprisingly, the book contains an awful lot of advice that is still relevant, and Hillis’ chatty tone and informal style has barely dated at all, leading to comparisons upon the books re-publication with Helen Fielding and Candace Bushnell.
Modern parallels aside, Hillis was a pioneer in a way that those writers are not. Lines such as, “There may still be those who look upon an unmarried state as an affliction, but in New York it is only a very minor ailment”, may have a similar reckless, throwaway feel, yet the fact that such lines are so timeless, and that the book has been re-published so many years later, makes you wonder just how successful Hillis’ message of self sufficiency and pride in yourself, combined with economic realism and awareness of how to behave, has been. She wasn’t at all conservative in her outlook, although certain sections of the book may read that way 71 years on, and she acknowledged the pace of change very well, writing in her chapter on sex and morality: “There is no denying that you can be a lot more aggressive now than you could have been a few years ago. Things that are taken for granted to-day would have stamped you as a hussy then.”
But it is when we come to chapter 11 and to the economic realities faced by those living alone that we really see just how little things have changed between 1936 and 2007 for the single woman. Hillis says: “Almost all women are born with a belief that some man will marry and support them, or, at the worst, that a relative will die and leave them a fortune. This is probably an instinct implanted by Providence and has something to do with the progation of the race. We haven’t time to figure out just what, but there it is, and it takes a long, long time to uproot it.”
Many Western women today may pride themselves on having a choice as to whether to marry or not, telling themselves they have their own jobs, own money, own interests, yet that “instinct implanted by Providence” Hillis’ identifies is still with us. Magazines such as Brides owe their readership to it, magazines such as Cosmopolitan tacitly, or openly, endorse it and marriage is still sold to young girls as a worthy ambition, particularly the ‘good match’ of a wealthy marriage.
Hillis wasn’t actually advocating that women remain single forever, she was tapping into a socio-economic phenomena created by the sheer number of young men who lost their lives on the fields of France in World War One, and concerns as to the futures of the young women left behind. She herself married in 1939, three years after the publication of Live Alone and Like It, at the age of 49. Yet that fact should not denigrate the message of the book, which, ultimately, is to enjoy what you have, to try new things, to not be afraid of change, to be loyal to your friends and to have relationships with men without expecting, or relying upon, a marriage proposal. This isn’t just a book about female independence, it’s a book about how to enjoy independence and that, really, is what makes the difference. It also goes a good way towards explaining the books continuing appeal.
Image of old fashioned typewriter by Florian Klauer on Unsplash