Archive for the ‘Marjorie Hillis’ Category

Though the independent woman wasn’t yet a norm in 1936, there were certainly more of them than ever before and so the success that year of Live Alone and Like It by Marjorie Hillis should be no surprise.  Written for “extra women” everywhere – but primarily appropriate for New Yorkers, or widows and stenographers across America longing to think of themselves as cosmopolitan New Yorkers – Hillis confidently guides her flock towards achieving enjoyable, fulfilling lives.  It is easy to be swept away by her energy and conviction and there are worse people to be led by – the better part of a century later her advice is still largely applicable and deeply sensible.

Hillis knew her audience: some were young women excitedly starting careers and still anticipating romantic resolutions but many were older, tired, sometimes widowed or divorced, and unsettled in a society that took it for granted that a woman needed a man to have a “full” life.  Hillis is frank about this.  Yes, you will be an inconvenience to your married friends without a man.  Yes, you may not be wanted at dinner parties or bridge games without a partner.  You are inconvenient but, in this, you are not special:

It is a good idea, first of all, to get over the notion (if you have it) that your particular situation is a little bit worse than anyone else’s.  This point of view has been experienced by every individual the world over at one time or another, except perhaps those who will experience it next year.

This is what I love most about Hillis: she is funny and practical but most of all she is frank. 

Hillis tries to make her readers see the opportunities they have.  They can live graciously without having to be at another’s beck and call!  They can have true independence, to do what they like when they like it!  They can devote themselves to their passions – and Hillis is a great believer in having these – without inconveniencing anyone else!  They can nurture interesting groups of friends, be part of the social whirlwind, and retire to perfect peace when they want it at home.  There are joys to living alone, you just need to be intelligent enough to see them and it is this core message that remains absolutely true today: whatever your circumstances, it is up to you to turn them into something you like:

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.

Across twelve short chapters, Hillis guides her readers through all they need to know about living alone in style and, most entertainingly, illustrates each chapter with case studies of women who have either excelled or failed miserably.  She addresses how to create a beautiful home on a budget, how to stock a liquor cabinet, how to make friends (this chapter remains particularly valuable), how to spend your leisure time (another timeless section), how to make your home a place you want to spend time in, and, very frankly, how to handle the question of men.  Hillis does not assume all her readers will live as nuns and she provides practical, sisterly advice for their consideration:

Certainly, affairs should not even be thought of before you are thirty.  Once you have reached this age, if you will not hurt any third person and can take all that you will have to take – take it silently, with dignity, with a little humour, and without any weeping or wailing or gnashing of teeth – perhaps the experience will be worth it to you.

The sad truth is that whatever you decide, you’ll think you regret it.  You’ll hate the shabby end of romance, and you’ll detest missing it altogether.

If she is determinedly realistic in her musings on sex, she saves her romanticising for the vision of how women should conduct themselves while alone:

…a glass of sherry and an extra special dinner charmingly served on a night when you’re tired and all alone; bath salts in your tub and toilet-water afterward; a new and spicy book when you’re spending an evening in bed; a trim little cotton frock that flatters you on an odd morning when you decide to be violently domestic.  The notion that it ‘doesn’t matter because nobody sees you,’ with the dull meals and dispirited clothes that follow in its wake, has done more damage than all the floods of springtime.

Anyone who can sustain this has my congratulations.  I violated many, many, many of Hillis’ dictates when I lived alone and I am sure my morale would have been much higher if I’d followed them – but then my circumstances felt far removed from the case studies she references.  I was neither living in a charmingly decorated studio apartment nor, in my more generous surroundings, did I have a helpful maid or daily cleaner to come in, whisk away the mess, and serve me tea in bed.  Clearly there were oversights and I shall do better next time. 

Despite her belief in pampering yourself, Hillis is extremely practical on the question of money – she has endless suggestions for cheap entertainments in NYC, ideas for ways to meet people, and never, ever believes that money is the solution.  Money cannot buy you taste or happiness and it is far more fun, she assures us, to live well on what you have than to try to project a level of wealth your paycheque can’t support.  Wit, ingenuity and energy are the answer to living well, not a chequebook.  Hillis had so much good advice to share on this topic that her next book – Bubbly on Your Budget – was devoted to it and should not be missed.

While the case studies can tend to hilarious extremes, the core advice of Live Alone and Like It is grounded, practical and essentially timeless.  And written in Hillis’ breezy, forceful style it is irresistible.

Many thanks to Simon and Karen for organizing the 1936 Club this week and providing the perfect excuse for me to finally read this after so many years of planning to!

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10927454When Lisa reviewed Live Alone and Like It last week I was stirred to action.  After years of having it on my TBR list, now was finally the right time to read it.  Not so, thought my library.  They have helpfully misplaced their one and only copy so, being an adaptable sort, I modified my ambitions and turned to Marjorie Hillis’ other helpful guide, Bubbly on Your Budget (originally Orchids on Your Budget).

Published in 1937, a year after her successful guidebook for women living on their own, Bubbly on Your Budget is full of advice on how to live nicely on limited means.  The general assumption is that the reader is a working woman, perhaps married, perhaps single, who is keen to live within her means but to still enjoy life’s little comforts – a pleasant home, attractive clothes, an active social life, and, if she is very reckless with her money, perhaps even a husband.  Hillis’s advice is sensible and actionable – both then and now – and, more importantly, she is not afraid of blunt statements.  Since I love bluntness, this book was utterly delightful to me.

Examples of such inspired frankness include Hillis addressing all those women who mope around offices, dreaming of domestic bliss:

There are also the women who go to offices in a martyr-like frame of mind, cherishing the belief that they would be knockouts in the role of devoted wives and loving mothers.  Perhaps they would, and then again, perhaps they wouldn’t.  If you’re martyr-like in one role, you’re pretty apt to be martyr-like in another.

And the consideration of what factors must be considered when a couple is trying to decide if they can afford to get by on just one salary:

Can we, or can we not, afford to marry – on the man’s salary or the man’s plus the woman’s? – This is a subject of chronic debate as violent as the seething over the Supreme Court issue, and half the debaters get the wrong answer.  They do their computing on a purely dollar-and-cent basis and don’t stop to figure out what they want out of marriage anyway and whether it’s all in the budget.  If your picture of being a wife is pretty luxurious, that’s an item you’d better put down right after Rent and Food, and then see whether you can cut down somewhere else.  If the man’s idea of romance is built round a chic figure with glamorous clothes and lily white hands, you’d better be pretty sure that one of you can pay for them.

The hallmark of a good advice book is that it does not date.  While some of the essential wardrobe items Hillis mentions may no longer be necessary (chic hats and decorative carnations sadly having little place in a 21st Century closet), the bulk of her recommendations can be just as easily applied today as eighty years ago.  Hillis is particularly useful when it comes to how to approach marriage on a budget.  Husbands, she warns her readers, cannot be relied upon to produce funds.  In fact, the most charming and delightful men might need to be supported themselves:

It is a regrettable, but undeniable, fact that the most delightful people are seldom big money-makers.  A few may have inherited large incomes, but they generally lose them or spend them.  Getting rich is apt to be a twenty-four –hour-a-day job and not always worth the trouble.  It leaves little time for the arts and graces, without a few of which most people are pretty trying.  This has always been admitted in high-minded moments (like church and first meetings with mothers-in-law).

And will he mind you supporting him or at least working side-by-side?  Not at all (if he is a practical man):

He may be full of chivalrous notions about pouring riches into your lap, during the honeymoon, but he knows too that they are part of a fairy-story out of the past.  Men have always expected women to work for them, and modern ones have next to no trouble in transposing the workroom from home to office.  The trouble comes when you outdo them in success, especially in their own field; but if you’re smart enough for that, you’ll probably know how to meet the problem.

That’s a useful reminder to women from any decade!

Hillis illustrates her points with case studies at the end of each chapter, giving examples of how well Miss or Mrs So-And-So has adapted to a life of thrift (or, in cautionary tales, has not).  These can be fun but they are a bit too neat – you don’t actually believe any of them are real people.  In the body of the text, Hillis is much more aware of the conflicts women feel between what they want, what they can afford, and what they actually end up doing.

All in all, a charming, funny, and deeply sensible book.

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