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Clutter is now as out-of-date as modesty, and for just as good reasons.or, without intending to cast aspersions against any bloggers (and glossing over my uninformed references to Gissing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.