Friday, February 10, 2012

The Singleton Strikes Back!

An op-ed piece in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago was centered on the fact that more people are living alone than ever before, with the USA actually lagging behind Europe in the number of singletons making their way in the world without a partner at their side. In fact, the author, Erik Klinenberg, says “singleton” is his word, but I could have sworn Helen Fielding arrived there first with the inimitable Bridget Jones.   About ten years ago, Meghan Daum wrote a similar article for the Los Angeles Times, when the 2000 census report was published, showing a rise in the number of people living alone.  “And you can bet most of those people are women,” she said.

This sort of observation is far from new, as readers of this blog know.  A generation of British women lived alone following the end of the Great War, and were even the subject of a 1921 pamphlet entitled, “The Problem of the Surplus Women.”  As I said in my introduction to the blog, when I launched it last year (click on the Introduction to the Blog link on the right if you haven’t read it), I’ve been collecting books for and by this generation for a long time now, so it’s time to break out one of my favorites – interestingly enough, written by an American author, and published in 1935.  Live Alone and Like It by Marjorie Hillis is a fun read – I have an original copy, but it was republished in 2008.  I’ll be looking at similar books in future posts, but let’s consider some sage words from Live Alone and Like It, which the author described as being “A Guide for the Extra Woman.” 

 Solitary Refinement is the title of the first chapter – and it sets the tone for the rest of the book, though the author is a bit dismissive of the “lonely hearts” types and says that, “There is a technique about living alone successfully … 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.”  Ah yes, a plan for singlehood.  If you read Singled Out, recommended in an earlier post, you’ll know that many women in post-WW1 Britain definitely made the best of it, if not the most  of it, with some choosing singlehood even when the opportunity for marriage presented itself.    Hillis, though, suggests, “ … the basis of successful living alone is determination to make it successful..”  With that in mind, here are a few of the chapter headings:

Who do you think you are?
When A Lady Needs A Friend
Your Leisure, If Any
The Great Uniter

That sentiment behind first chapter title has inspired a whole raft of self-help books in recent years.  You can almost feel Marjorie Hillis wagging her finger and warning you to “act as if …” in a very take-no-prisoners fashion. Indeed, she says it behooves the single woman to acts as if she were a duchess, or deserved nothing less than orchids.  “It’s a good idea,” she says, “to get over the notion (if you have it) that your particular situation is a little bit worse than anyone else’s.”  I could almost hear my grandmother saying that, starting her tirade with something along the lines of, “If you think you’ve got it bad, think of (add deprived person, whether the starving, the poor, the sick.)”  It worked, that “just get on with it” attitude.  Here’s some more advice from Hillis:  “Never, never, never let yourself feel that anybody ought to do anything for you.  Once you become a duty you also become a nuisance.”  Ouch, I bet that hurt a few of her original readers, and maybe a few of her more recent followers.

Listening well, attention to matters of one’s personal grooming, care with alcohol consumption, and friendship are all discussed, along with advice on the spending and saving of money.  Though Live Alone & Like It was one of many such books written during the between-the-wars period, it is certainly one of the most entertaining.  I’ve often imagined the kind of women, in that era, who might have bought this book.  I think it would have made them feel not quite so alone, knowing that they were, in fact, part of a trend.  Now, according to those recent articles, though there’s an assumption that most single people living alone are women, increasingly men are choosing the solitary life.   The interesting thing is that the dynamics are different now, when compared to those faced by Britain’s “surplus women” of the 1920’s – we have enhanced travel, social media, all sorts of ways to feel connected.  Yet so many are choosing to live alone and please themselves.

The final page of Live Alone And Like It has a Q & A, and includes the question, “May a woman traveling alone talk to men who are fellow travelers without being introduced – especially on shipboard?
Answer:  If you are old enough to travel on shipboard alone, you are old enough to talk to anyone who interests you.

I like Marjorie’s no-nonsense approach, though she sounds a little like the headmistress of a girls’ school who has transitioned into being a life coach.  Klinenberg closes his New York Times op-ed piece with the words, “All signs suggest that living alone will become even more common in the future, at every stage of adulthood and in every place where people can afford a place of their own.” 

Taking into account the advice of women like Marjorie Hillis, it seems that if you want to like how you live, whoever you are, whether you are alone – or, indeed, with a partner or family – an element of being able to do what you want to do, when you want to do it is an absolute necessity.

Next time:  The Women Who Spied in WW1


  1. Like all your blogs I found this one very interesting. I especially liked the one about the lady flyers.

  2. I recently watched a couple episodes of "South Riding" on PBS' Masterpiece, and that's where I first heard of "surplus women."
    The Q&A about introductions onboard a ship is priceless!

  3. from Jacqueline

    Thank you, both, for your comments. The "South Riding" miniseries was very well done - I have the DVD. I'd read Winifred Holtby's book many years ago - and interestingly enough, I've been rediscovering her work lately. Good recommendation - thank you!