Live Alone and Like It by Marjorie Hillis – #1936Club

This week Karen and Simon are hosting another of their clubs where we all read and write about books published in the same year – and I think this particular year, 1936, is one of the best so far. I’ve already read a lot of great 1936 books and there are many more that I considered reading for the club.

Live Alone and Like It by Vogue editor Marjorie Hillis, is a self-help book for single women who, either intentionally or unintentionally, find themselves living alone. I’m not someone who normally reads self-help books, but I thought it might be fun to read one published in 1936 and, as I do live alone, to see if Hillis has any good advice for me!

As nice, perhaps, as any other way of living, and infinitely nicer than living with too many people (often meaning two or more others) or with the wrong single individual. You can live alone gaily, graciously, ostentatiously, dully, stolidly. Or you can just exist in sullen loneliness, feeling sorry for yourself and arousing no feeling whatever in anybody else.

As you can probably tell from the quote above, Hillis has very little patience with women who indulge in self-pity and sit around complaining about their living arrangements. Her view is that single women can easily become a burden to other people and should avoid doing so at all costs: ‘Remember that nothing is so damaging to self-esteem as waiting for a telephone or door-bell that doesn’t ring.’ Instead, in her brisk, no-nonsense style she urges us to take control of our own lives and raise our self-esteem by giving ourselves little treats, cooking nice meals, wearing new clothes, and not telling ourselves that it ‘doesn’t matter because nobody sees you’.

There are some amusing question and answer sections, with questions like ‘How late is it proper for a woman living alone to entertain a man friend, and how can she get him to go at the correct time?’ and each chapter ends with a selection of case studies, showing how some women have perfectly mastered the art of successfully living alone while others unfortunately haven’t. She devotes a whole chapter to the pleasures of sleeping in a single bed, pointing out that ‘most people have more fun in bed than anywhere else, and we are not being vulgar’ and another takes us step-by-step through the correct preparation, cooking and serving of meals for one person:

Very well, then, have your orange juice and black coffee and toast…Our plea is merely for plenty of orange juice, coffee and toast; really good orange juice, coffee and toast; and orange juice, coffee and toast attractively served.

There’s no doubt that Hillis’ target audience were women of a certain class; she seems to take it for granted that you will probably have a maid – and if you don’t, you’re very unfortunate as you’ll have to do everything yourself – and she provides lots of tips on hosting the perfect cocktail party or bridge night. There’s also an assumption that you will be living in a large city like New York with plenty of clubs, theatres and exhibitions to go to; women who live alone in a small town or in the countryside aren’t given as much attention, except in a few of the case studies. However, a lot of her advice is still relevant today and to everyone, such as how to meet people and make new friends. I will leave you with a quote that I think applies to all of us live-aloners, whatever our personal circumstances:

Living alone, you can – within your own walls – do as you like. The trick is to arrange your life so that you really do like it.

30 thoughts on “Live Alone and Like It by Marjorie Hillis – #1936Club

  1. Elle says:

    I read this a while back and, while coming to the same conclusions as you (what if we *don’t* have maids, Marjorie, eh?), really enjoyed it. To be taken with a pinch of salt, but it still has plenty to say!

  2. Simon T says:

    1936 is my favourite club year yet, I think! I read lots of guides for unmarried women as part of my DPhil research, and most of them were so miserable – Hillis’s was such a breath of fresh air. And – as a live-aloner – I agree that there is much advice still to be listened to!

  3. buriedinprint says:

    What a suitable quotation at the end there: this sounds like a real delight (even for those of us who do not have –and would not choose to have–a maid).

  4. Jo says:

    You just wouldn’t think of self help books back in the 1930s, this sounds interesting.

    And whilst some days I would like a cleaner if not a maid, I think the quote you use is correct, you can do what you like and make your life what it is. I like to think I do at least 90% of the time.

  5. The Idle Woman says:

    Ah, I love this book so much! It’s one of my comfort books: I bought it in hardback when I was at university and it saw me through over a decade of living alone. It is fabulous: not always applicable to modern circumstances, as you say (especially re. the maids!), but Hilliard is so full of pep that she always makes it sound like a wonderful adventure. She almost – I stress ‘almost’ – convinced me to buy a satin bed-jacket 😉

    If you enjoyed this, have you come across Hillis’s financial self-help book, Orchids On Your Budget? ( It’s very much in the same spirit and comes (or came) in a matching pocket hardback edition. Wonderful old-school escapism, with a few still-relevant underlying truths.

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