In which I enthusiastically recommend an advice book from the 1930s

In troubled times, sometimes the best thing you can do is open a book and pretend you live somewhere else. In these particular troubled times, I have a feeling almost anywhere else would do—even Mordor. Now feels like a really good time to climb into a long fantasy series and never climb out.

livealoneBut for my own escapist reading last weekend, I chose Marjorie Hillis’s 1936 advice book Live Alone and Like It, pitched as “the classic guide for the single woman” and complete with charming illustrations (peppered throughout this blog post). You’re probably wondering why anyone needs a guide to living alone, let alone liking it, especially if you’ve ever had roommates. It’s true that living alone is a pretty simple matter of paying rent and, you know, living there, but Hillis is here to tell you that living alone can also be a Great Adventure, or at the very least a moderately stylish and entertaining good time.

img_20161123_213941I’ve lived on my own for just over three years, and the pleasure of having everything exactly where I want it and as I like it has yet to diminish. Recently, I bought a new cover for my couch. Who did I have to fight with over the colour or convince that it was a worthwhile purchase? Absolutely no one. (Regrettably, I did have to pay for it all myself.)

Hillis is fully in favour of making one’s living-by-oneself existence as comfortable and cozy as possible. A writer for Vogue, she was naturally concerned with fashion, style, and parties, but she also, smartly, realized that as more and more women were moving into cities to take jobs and delaying marriage to work and date first, some of them might end up living on their own, and those women would also want to be fashionable, stylish, and throw parties. Live Alone and Like It is aimed at women who hope to eventually not live alone—e.g., women who hope to marry. It was such a bestseller that women who lived alone briefly became known as “liver-alones,” and Hillis went on to write another advice book, Orchids on Your Budget.

img_20161123_230559But even if one is just waiting to get married, says Hillis (remember, in this book it’s 1936), living alone doesn’t have to be a sad routine of eating sardines from the tin or wearing shabby housecoats. Absolutely not! In Hillis’s world, living alone is a glorious affair featuring lively cocktail parties, well-ordered weekends of reading, dinner dates, and breakfasts in bed, and quilted bed-jackets to wear when entertaining from one’s bed. (There’s a whole chapter devoted to beds called “The Pleasures of a Single Bed.”)

img_20161123_214018Written in crisp, wry, matter-of-fact prose, Live Alone and Like It offers practical advice about how to manage meals for one, entertain in a small space, keep oneself stylish on a budget, and find an appropriate hobby. For example, did you know that all you need to have people over for cocktails is seven bottles? (Sherry, gin, Scotch, rye, French and Italian vermouth, bitters.)

Hillis also ends each chapter with adorable, possibly completely fictional “case studies”
about real women who do or do not follow her advice. Consider “Miss N., a pink and plump lady” who scares off men because she has “the gleam of the huntress” in her eyes, versus Mrs. de W, a widow who learns that breakfast in bed is the cure after a lifetime of working hard. Let’s all put on our favourite bed-jackets, let in some morning sun, and eat some toast in bed while we read a novel.

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This book is really quite delightful, and it doesn’t even feel that dated. There is an arch comment about Calvin Coolidge, which isn’t exactly topical, but it’s a sick burn, so that’s a wash. In the past few years, there have been a whole host of books about women living alone and spinsterhood and people delaying marriage (I’ve even written about some of them), and Live Alone and Like It fits right in, especially with its focus on what to buy to achieve the perfect single life. Consumerism and spinsterhood seem to go hand in hand, but that’s an essay for another blog post.

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Allow me to quote from the book now to convince you that it’s a singularly pleasurable reading experience. And with chapter titles like “Solitary Refinement” and “A Lady and Her Liquor,” how could it not be?

On the reasons why people find themselves living alone: “… 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.”

On a proper bedroom wardrobe: “This is no place to be grim and practical. […] don’t think that four bed-jackets are too many.”

On breakfast in bed (her favourite topic): “Of course, the civilized place for any woman to have breakfast is in bed.”

On having a second savings account, separate from your emergency fund: “It may seem superfluous to you, occasionally it may even be superfluous, but, in that case, you can always blow it in on an evening coat or a trip to Bermuda.”

On hobbies: “The hobbies your friends will appreciate most are astrology, numerology, palmistry, reading hand-writing, and fortune telling by cards (or anything else).” It’s the parenthetical “anything else” that I love there. Even fortune telling by reading animal entrails?!img_20161123_214045

I’ve been thinking a lot about the why of living alone lately. My landlords sold the house I live in, and for a while I thought I should move out and find roommates so I could pay less rent. But I keep coming back to the same thought, that living alone is truly worth it. There’s a special kind of magic in being able to sit on my (newly covered!)* couch on a Saturday morning, reading or waiting for banana bread to bake or checking the morning headlines, and looking up to see my card catalogue and my old butter churn and all my art and books and unnecessary throw blankets, and knowing that absolutely no one is going to bother me or tell me I have too many blankets, because I live alone and like it. As Hillis writes, “The trick is to arrange your life so that you really do like it.” Helpful advice for all of us, liver-alone or not.

* this is a lie because I haven’t actually put on the new cover yet

A Whole Shelf of Dating Books, or the Beginning of My Charlotte Lucas Year

I turned twenty-seven last week. I’m also single. Fans of Jane Austen will know that this puts me firmly in Charlotte Lucas territory. In Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte is the best friend of Elizabeth Bennet, our protagonist. Charlotte is described as around twenty-seven, plain, but sensible and practical. Charlotte is really more notable for what she isn’t; as Joshua Rothman writes, she’s not young, not pretty, and not rich. Not married. And at the age of twenty-seven, she’s a spinster.

The cover of Bolick's Spinster is a masterpiece of modern marketing. Try to count all the subliminal messages being sent here.
The cover of Bolick’s Spinster is a masterpiece of marketing. Try to count all the subliminal messages being sent here.

P&P was published in 1813,  but people are still interested in that word, it seems. Many women are “reclaiming” it, turning it from something derisive into something else, but we’re not sure what, exactly, that something else is. In Spinster, published earlier this year, Kate Bolick wrote about her desire to build a life on her own terms, taking inspiration from five female American writers who had complicated relationships with men and marriage. Spinster is a thought-provoking, though frustratingly self-absorbed, look at the choice to remain single. Bolick’s conclusion seems to be that any woman can be a spinster if she decides to spend time thinking carefully about what she wants from her life, if she tries to find a way to build that life by following a less traditional path, if she simply decides that she’d rather not get married. And instead of being an object of scorn, Bolick’s spinster is admirable, even aspirational, in her radical desire to make choices that are unencumbered by men.*

(* A few notes here: Spinster discusses heterosexual relationships, mainly, from what I can remember. Naturally, same-sex relationships complicate the issue. And the idea that anyone makes choices in a vacuum, uninfluenced by past boyfriends or fathers or even just male friends, is definitely suspect. But this is how Bolick characterizes her spinsters.)

Edwin Long's The Spinster from Internet Archive/U of T Library. Source.
Edwin Long’s The Spinster from Internet Archive/U of T Library. Source.

Spinsters are pretty in right now. Lots of women (and men, too) are posting images of themselves with their cats to Instagram and silly Tweets about nightgowns and eating chocolate in bed (just a few examples from my own life…), using hashtags like #spinsterlife. The Toast, probably the Internet’s most popular blog for spinsters (which I say with admiration), has done a number of hilarious pieces about modern spinsters. Has spinsterhood become some kind of hipster lifestyle movement? Is it now about having cats and enjoying knitting and going on vacation alone? If so, I’m on board. We don’t need “spinster” as a legal categorization anymore (“single” or “unmarried” will do just fine, thanks), so let’s make it into a different thing, a fun, tongue-in-cheek kind of thing. Let’s all solve a murder and then go out for gin-based cocktails and head back to our perfectly decorated apartments-for-one like real badass spinsters.

In real life (and some fiction), spinsters were objects of derision or pity. They began as independent women who spun fabric. And then, probably because unmarried women are threatening to a society that depends upon heterosexual marriage for reproduction, something changed and they became lonely figures. They weren’t cool aspirational figures who could do whatever they wanted; they were often women without family or money who couldn’t work because Sexism and so had to make ends meet with limited resources. As Briallen Hopper points out, for a book called Spinster, Bolick’s memoir/cultural history doesn’t have much to say about those kinds of spinsters. (In fact, it’s really not much of a cultural history at all, preoccupied as it is with white, relatively privileged New York writers. I’d love to read a book about the evolving figure of the spinster, from spinning fabric to today, if there are any out there.) Most of the five women Bolick profiles were married at least once. Bolick writes about the relationships she herself had in between bouts of living alone, travelling, and prioritizing her work. Bolick isn’t living a life apart from men; she’s constructing her life and fitting men in here and there when she wants to.

An 1881 cartoon from the British humour mag Punch. Source.

The “real” spinster is missing, or at least the spinster as we’re most familiar with her: the dour maiden aunt or neighbour with her pursed lips and reduced circumstances, hiding a secret life behind closed doors, the object of many speculations about why she never married—the Emily Dickinsons and Emily Griersons of this world (is Emily a spinster name or what?), the Miss Havishams, the Miss Bateses, all of the many unmarried women in Henry James and Edith Wharton and Charlotte Bronte, even Miss Marple. Austen herself, and most of the Brontes, and lots of other female writers. These are women who are uninteresting to men for reasons of looks, money, or personality (too outspoken, too awkward, not agreeable enough) or threatening to men because of their intelligence and desire for something other than marriage in a time when marriage was the only acceptable end to their stories. The Charlotte Lucases of fiction.

Charlotte, of course, becomes not-a-spinster pretty quickly; she marries Elizabeth’s cousin Mr. Collins, who had previously proposed to Elizabeth and been rejected. Mr. Collins is odious—all you need to do is search for images of “Mr. Collins Pride and Prejudice BBC” and you’ll see exactly why Elizabeth, or anyone, would have refused him. He’s a pompous, self-important social climber. He simpers in front of his social superiors and self-righteously informs his cousins of what books they should be reading. He’s horrible. So why does Charlotte marry him? Because he has a wealthy patron and a good income and he’s going to inherit the Bennet house some day. Charlotte’s twenty-seven and this might be the first and last marriage proposal she receives. As Mrs. Collins, she’ll have a house of her own, probably children, and security for the rest of her life. As Miss Lucas, unmarried eldest daughter of a small-town knight, she’ll be a burden to her parents.

Mr. Collins is stomach-turning. Source.
Mr. Collins isn’t exactly tall, dark, and handsome. Source.

Rothman argues that we should try harder to understand Charlotte’s choice to marry Mr. Collins, a choice that is generally read as depressing or sad, even in the context of Charlotte’s world, Regency-era England. Especially as modern readers, we’re sad that Charlotte feels that her only option in life is to marry a man she doesn’t love. She’s the 1813 version of that Princeton mom. As Rothman points out, though, this is a choice that Charlotte makes herself, in a world that tries its hardest to deny her a choice at every turn. She’s fully aware of Mr. Collins’s defects, and her own. She isn’t pretty enough or rich enough to attract a different kind of husband, and that’s her reality. So she makes the choice to marry him, to be a wife and not a spinster, to create a life of her own (she rearranges the rooms in his house to her liking and encourages him to spend his time in the garden). Not the kind of life that Bolick decides to create, but a life that she can live with nonetheless.

I started with Spinster, but I’ve found myself reading a lot of books about these topics: dating and relationships, being single, modern love. Maybe that’s the cultural moment we’re in now. People are delaying marriage, and online dating is taking off, so people are writing about these things. There’s Spinster and a number of smart reaction pieces to it. Aziz Ansari’s book on the sociology of modern dating, Modern Romance, came out this year, following a 2014 book called It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single by Sara Eckel (there’s that number again). All of these articles and books have made me think a little harder about how we date, and why.

modern romanceAnsari writes well about the problem of dating in the modern age. Modern Romance is immensely entertaining, and reassuring, too, if you’ve ever tried online dating and thought, “Well, this is terrible.” You’re not alone, because Ansari has tried it, too, and he has a lot of funny anecdotes to share. He retells dating horror stories people told him in focus groups. He visits retirement homes to figure out how people met fifty years ago. He travels to Tokyo and Buenos Aires to see how people date in other countries. Unlike Bolick, who writes to defend the spinster life, Ansari assumes that if you’re reading his book, you’re interested in dating and settling into a serious relationship (and Modern Romance is about men and women). So he has a few practical tips about giving it more than one date, and actually meeting up in person instead of living through your screens, and so on. But he also makes a number of accurate observations about the state of modern romance. Dating is hard. We’re all on our phones all the time, and another potential date is just a swipe away. We can’t focus on the person sitting across the table from us.

9780399162879_p0_v2_s260x420-thumb-350x477-122899Eckel, too, writes about how hard dating can be. In her late thirties, Eckel was single, not by choice, and found herself frustrated by all of the well-meaning advice she received from friends. So she wrote an essay and then a book to explain why it was all wrong. You’re too picky, you’re too confident: it may be well-meaning, but it’s all contradictory. It isn’t “too picky” to reject people who want different things than you do, it’s smart. How can being “too confident” scare suitors away when people are also telling singles they should be more confident to attract others? Eckel’s argument is that most single people (those who don’t want to be single) simply haven’t met the right person yet. It’s Not You is about how it’s fine to want to be in a relationship, and Spinster is all about how it’s fine to not be in one, but they have much in common. You have to create your own life, whether you’re in a relationship or not. And you should think about the choices you make: the bad relationships you leave; the people you choose not to date or the ones you waste time with, knowing that you don’t even like them; the marriage proposal you may have turned down; the person who treated you badly and you couldn’t see it. Why did you make those choices, and what do they say about what you really want?

I’ve been jokingly referring to this as my Charlotte Lucas Year. Celebrating my birthday with a friend, I drank a cocktail called an Old Maid, a delicious sort of alcoholic lemonade, and I thought about all the things I have at twenty-seven that many spinsters before me could not. It’s 2015, and so I can date whomever I choose. More importantly, I have a job that I find fulfilling and a small amount of disposable income to spend on spinster-y things like my cat and adult colouring books and a library card catalogue. And then, I can post photos of all of those things to Instagram with a sarcastic hashtag. In my own way, I’m participating in the spinster reclaiming, celebrating elements of “spinster culture” and self-deprecatingly talking about being an old maid at twenty-seven, knowing full well that I’m not. I don’t know what Charlotte Lucas Year actually means just yet—maybe it’s just funny, or maybe it means I’m going to spend this year trying to figure out my life and what I want from it (spoiler alert: not to marry Mr. Collins). I think, though, that single or coupled, as we get older, all of us are setting off into uncharted territory. Our lives don’t look much like the lives of our parents; we’re delaying marriage and babies, not buying houses, driving Zipcars and taking transit and living in cities instead of moving to suburbs. Like Charlotte, we all have to figure out what choice is right for us, regardless of what judgmental readers have to say about it 200 years later.