This "Classic Guide for the Single Woman," first published in 1936, is one of the brightest and funniest books that I've read in a long time. According to the author's note, Marjorie Hillis worked for Vogue, eventually becoming an assistant editor. She was part of the rise of a class of professional women in early 20th-century America, many of whom lived away from family and on their own - both major social changes. Her book is aimed at her fellow workers, as well as those women who through chance or circumstance ended up living alone. It includes a lot of practical information, some a bit dated, but other sections that wouldn't be out of place in this month's Oprah magazine. It's the tone though that makes this such a delight. Here is the opening of the first chapter, "Solitary Refinement":
This book is no brief in favor of living alone. Five out of ten people who do so can't help themselves, and at least three of the others are irritatingly selfish. But the chances are that at some time in your life, possibly only now and then between husbands, you will find yourself settling down to a solitary existence.I loved the bracing mix of snark and hard common sense in those paragraphs, which set the tone for the rest of the book. In the next, Ms. Hillis laid out the philosophy and purpose of her book:
You may do it from choice. Lots of people do - more and more every year. Most of them think that they are making a fine modern gesture and, along about the second month, frequently wish they hadn't.
Or you may - though of course you don't - belong to the great army of Lonely Hearts with nobody to love them. This is a group to which no one with any gumption need belong for more than a couple of weeks, but in which a great many people settle permanently and gloomily.
The point is that there is a technique about living alone successfully, as there is about doing anything really well. Whether you view your one-woman ménage as Doom or Adventure (and whether you are twenty-six or sixty-six), you need a plan, if you are going to make the best of it.She was a strong advocate for independence and self-determination, writing "You have got to decide what kind of life you want and then make it for yourself." It should be a life that brings enjoyment and fulfillment. Her book covers what she saw as key elements in a plan for successful living. The most important is to build relationships, friendships as much as romance. (Refreshingly, if this book isn't a brief for living alone, it also does not assume that all women will or should marry, nor is it a husband-hunting guide.) She included advice on dressing well, furnishing and decorating a home (of any size, including a studio apartment), cooking and eating for one, and entertaining. There is also very practical advice about living on a budget, and the need for savings, particularly in planning for retirement. All of this makes for an interesting social history of life in the 1930s.
Each chapter ends with case studies, illustrating the topics covered in the chapter. They contrast women who have made happy lives for themselves with others who can't be bothered, or those who feel too sorry for themselves to even try. One of my favorites was Mrs. C of Chicago, recently widowed,
who weighed the advantages of being a widow in one place or the other and decided that her choice was between frills in her home town and necessities in Chicago. Knowing herself better than most of us do, she took the frills and returned, sleek and slim in widow's weeds, to her native town. . . She has become a Character and will some day become a Legend. And since Mrs C loves popularity and adores fame, and would have had little of either in Chicago, we salute her as a lady who knew what she wanted and got it.Ms. Hillis was a great advocate of comfort and even luxury, within one's budget. She laid it down as dogma that single women should have their breakfasts in bed, even (or especially) if they were going on to some less-than-exciting job. "[B]e an elegant lady of leisure just the same, from, say, seven-forty-five to eight-fifteen. Even though nobody knows, you'll be more of a person the rest of the day." Of course, to truly enjoy that luxury, one's bedroom should be as comfortable and well-furnished as possible.
It is probably true that most people have more fun in bed than anywhere else, and we are not being vulgar . . . We are all for as much glamour as possible in the bedroom. The single bedroom, as well as the double one. If even the most respectable spinsters would regard their bedrooms as places where anything might happen, the resulting effects would be extremely beneficial.The temptation is to go on quoting from this racy, pithy little book. I'll stop here, and just leave you with the titles of a few of the chapters, which might tempt you in turn: "When a Lady Needs a Friend," "Setting for a Solo Act," and "A Lady and Her Liquor."