Advice books: your guide to the best (and worst)

So much advice, so little time... Ever since Mrs Beeton put pen to paper, women have devoured guides to living happily ever after. This Christmas, record numbers will hit the shelves. But are they any good? Esther Walker goes in search of domestic bliss
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Here are three pieces of advice that millions of British women will have read yesterday. Number one: "If you are being photographed, avoid wearing blue." Number two: "Dinner hair ought to be dressed in a chignon and frizzed very much." Number three: "Playing the piano will spread and enlargen your hands."

Three top tips, and no mistake. But where, exactly, did these important nuggets of feminine genius come from? Were they written in problem pages of Bella magazine? Or on the glossier paper of that middle aged womens' bible, Reader's Digest? Or, given their focus on high-fashion (a "chignon" , anybody?) maybe they could have been taken from the hoity-toity llifestyle section of Vogue?

Or maybe not. In fact, this all-encompassing array of lifestyle advice was actually taken from a publication called The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine, which hit the streets in the heady winter of 1863, and was published by the Victorian era's answer to Nigella Lawson, Mrs Beeton. A copy unearthed by an auctioneer at a house clearance in Staffordshire was reprinted in a tabloid newspaper yesterday, and is now to be sold by Hansons Auctioneers in Derbyshire for an estimated price of £300.

The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine was as much of a hit in its day as Heat is now. It was published every month, bound in leather, and cost 2d. Within four years of its launch, it had a circulation of 56,000. And like much of what the extraordinary Isabella Beeton wrote and did (she also published an era-defining cookery book, and a guide to how to run your house), the magazine's tone and contents showed a remarkable degree of foresight.

Mrs Beeton was the first, original and best writer of "how-to" guides for women. They sold by the truckload, made her rich and famous, and have been mimicked by journalists and publishers ever since. Today, more than ever, girls can draw advice from a bewildering array of self-appointed, Beeton-style life advisors. For one of the biggest, most lucrative, and most heavily advertised trends this Christmas is for self-help books aimed squarely at the contemporary, affluent, ambitious female.

You only need to glimpse the shelves in WH Smith or Waterstone's to see that the trend is in danger of taking over the book market: there are guides on how to be a good girl, a naughty girl, a slutty girl, a yummy mummy, a slummy mummy, a green girl, a good granny, a surrendered wife, a goddess, a bitch. Nigella Lawson's Nigella Express, the heavyweight champ of the genre – with its mixture of cookery and be-lovely-like-me prose – sailed straight into the top of Amazon's bestseller list as soon as it went on sale and has been there ever since.

But why is there such a glut of books telling people – particularly women – what to do? Can't we work it out for ourselves? Are we not happy enough already? Do they reflect an under-reported unhappiness eating away at the soul of modern Britain? One expert, the feminist writer Natasha Walter, believes that a fair portion of their appeal is down to good old-fashioned fear.

"These books really are just pouring out and a lot are so self-consciously retro," she says. "Women have become more and more successful and I think that produces anxieties. There is now an odd fear of not being seen as both feminine and competent and successful in a man's world. The same anxiety doesn't surround men, masculinity hasn't really been subject to the same questioning. There's no anxiety about their roles in the same way."

But, adds Walter, these books can be pretty useful, too. "A lot of this generation didn't get taught home skills at school and neither did they learn it from their mothers, so there is an anxiety that these feminine skills are being lost."

Fay Weldon, the author of The Lives and Loves of a She-Devil, believes that it's all about looking for answers. "A lot of women think there's a secret to living happily ever after and once upon a time the answer was a man. Now women aren't sure that the answer is a man and some think the answer is in these books. It probably is very difficult for women these days to know what to do or how to be. All their mothers went out to work as well so there's all sorts of things you don't know."

Weldon also believes the books appeal to womens' innately competitive nature. "Men don't notice, on the whole, what women wear. But women notice what other women wear – you want to keep up and compete and do better than other women. The better you do, the better chance you'll have of finding an alpha male."

"The man isn't particularly looking for the best woman, he is looking for the best available woman. Women look for their knight in shining armour and keep going until they find him; when men get to the age when they think they should settle down, they choose the best girl from all the available ones. If you want to be married, you just have to be one of those six women and cook the best meal he wants – or thinks he wants."

Although bookshops seem to be drowning in self-help guides they have always, as Mrs Beeton shows, been around. Many of today's self-help books are reprints of old texts, such as The Bachelor Girl's Guide to Everything (1916) and The Good Wife's Guide (1955).

The modern self-help book – sassy, frank, and sexualised – was probably created in 1975, when Shirley Conran wrote Superwoman, in which she famously said that life was too short to stuff a mushroom. More recently, at the start of the current landslide of lifestyle self-help books, the Vogue journalist Rita Konig found huge success with her interior design bible Domestic Bliss (2002) and when Trinny and Susannah translated their TV Show What Not To Wear into a book, also in 2002, it flew off the shelves.

But now, every Tom Dick and Harry has jumped on the self-help bandwagon. So a crowded market is stuffed with duds, and it's difficult to know who wannabe Mrs Beetons should believe. Here, then, is a brief guide to which girls' guides are useful and which are just a waste of your precious time....

Your guide to the guides

The guides have been rated according to the following categories:
Domestic help
Finance & Careers advice
Relationship solutions
Style & beauty tips

Mrs Beeton's Household Book
By Mrs Beeton, edited by Kay Fairfax
Weidenfeld & Nicholson

Who? Isabella Beeton wrote this bestseller in 1861. "What moved me," she said, "was the discomfort I had seen brought upon men and women by household mismanagement."

The ethos: Part-guide, part-nostalgic glimpse, this shows you how to keep house, Victorian-style.

Most relevant tip: " Invitations for a dinner party should be issued a fortnight or three weeks beforehand and care should be taken by the hostess in the selection of the invited guests."

Most out-of-date tip: Those on housemaids, lighting fires and mangles.

Typical sentence: "Food that is not well-relished cannot be digested; and the appetite of the man of business... is jaded, and requires stimulation.

Verdict: More of a social history than a modern guide.

Rating: Domestic help; finance & careers advice; etiquette

A Girl For All Seasons
By Camilla Morton
Hodder & Stoughton

Who? Morton is a former fashion journalist, who has past form with the bestselling How To Walk in High Heels.

The ethos: "This book will guide you through the months with a perfectly co-ordinated combination of culture and challenges."

Best tip: Sophie Dahl on how to walk the red carpet: "Don't start chattering to photographers as they are snapping; you'll have your mouth open in the pictures and look like a freak."

Most patronising tip: How to download a podcast.

Typical sentence: "Rather than watching re-runs, why not see for yourself why Shakespeare's words have survived and read a play of his?"

Verdict: A fictional finishing school for wannabe fashionistas, told by a rather patronising school marm.

Rating: Style & beauty tips

The Good Wife Guide: 19 Rules For Keeping a Happy Husband
Extracted from Ladies' Homemaker monthly

Who? Ladies' Homemaker Monthly was a popular US women's magazine, published in the Midwest at the turn of last century.

The ethos: "You can judge a good woman by how many well-dressed children she has, and the contentment of her husband."

Least terrifying tip: "Greet him with a smile. Nothing says 'Welcome home, dear' better than an ear-to-ear expression of your love."

Most terrifying tip: " Engage your husband in stimulating conversation ranging from news to world events, but don't appear too knowledgeable. A good wife defers to her husband."

Typical sentence: " Entice him into the bedroom by forgetting your cold cream and curlers in favour of a seductive negligee. Be a tantalising temptress in those few, short minutes before your husband falls asleep."

Verdict: The Stepford Wife's mantra. The single most disturbing thing is that one suspects this might actually be a genuine insight into what men really want.

Rating: Relationship solutions; etiquette

Trinny & Susannah: The Survival Guide
By Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine
Weidenfeld and Nicholson

Who?: The original, and some would say best, fashion bossy-boots who, with their programme What Not To Wear, got a generation of girls to re-think the way they dressed.

The ethos: More about lifestyle than fashion; it's "the girls' advice on how to balance a busy life and still look fabulous".

Best tip: Their "easy peasy" prawn starter, chicken in tomato sauce and raspberry pudding; capsule holiday wardrobes, and guides to being a good godparents.

Most patronising trip: "Write down in your journal what you've achieved so far in your life. You are a valuable person already."

Typical sentence: "With meticulous planning we manage to pack everything we need into a holdall. It hasn't always been the case. Susannah used to turn up with only the clothes on her back, while Trinny would arrive [with] her house in a steamer trunk."

Verdict: They are best when talking about clothes, but this guide is genuinely useful.

Rating: Domestic help; finance & careers advice; style & beauty tips

The Good Granny Guide
By Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall
Short Books

Who?: Jane F-W is Hugh F-W's mum, a grandmother-of-four, and a journalist who has turned her Daily Telegraph column into a book. She has also written books about gardening and plants, including The Imperial Flower and Gardening Made Easy.

The ethos: One in two women can expect to be a grandparent by 54, and longer life expectancy means that grandparents are now in their grandchildren's lives for longer. Granny Jane guides you adjusting from being a mother to a grandmother.

Best tip: " don't correct your grandchildren's appalling table manners in front of their parents. The latter will be infuriated at the implied criticism of their rearing methods."

Silliest tip: "Never leave a dog or cat alone in a room with a child."

Typical sentence: "Another way that good grannies can create extra time for the parents is by stocking their freezer with heat-and-serve dishes. They don't have to be homemade – though if you are the perfect hands-on granny, they will be."

Verdict: If my granny weren't already a very good granny, I would recommend this to her.

Rating: Domestic help; relationship solutions; etiquette

The Bachelor Girl's Guide to Everything
By Agnes M Miall

Who? Agnes M Miall lived at the turn of the last century and wrote the Edwardian classic, The British Girl's Annual.

The ethos: Published in 1916, this was aimed at the girl who found herself on her own, her husband having gone off to war. (Or died.)

Best tip: You can steam vegetables by putting them in a clean jam jar, and putting the jam jar in a pan of boiling water. There is also a guide to how to wash up properly, lay a fire and find good rented accommodation.

Silliest tip: There are no silly tips, but lots of anachronisms, such as how to trim a lamp and the best typewriter India rubbers.

Typical sentence: "For some obscure reason, simple facts about money matters never seem to be taught at schools, and the consequence is that a girl often sets out to make her own way in the world without the most elementary knowledge about such everyday matters as the drawing of a cheque, and thus falls a ready prey to dishonest people."

Verdict: Surprisingly (and rather scarily) relevant, almost a century later.

Rating: Domestic help; finance & careers advice; etiquette

The Modern Maiden's Handbook
By Nina de la Mer

Who? Good question. According to the dustjacket, de la Mer lives in Brighton with her family. She also seems to be a friend of Julie Burchill, who writes the introduction.

The ethos: "It's time to grab the 21st century by the balls... let's wave goodbye to those feminist and ladette legacies... this book is a guide for fun nights out, naughty nights in, and making it through a day at work..."

Best tip: Start smoking if you want to make new friends. Yes, really.

Silliest tip: Everything else, including a suggestion to leave behind boxes of junk when you move. " Who knows, the next inhabitant may find something useful among your knick-knacks." Yes, Nina. Or they will be cursing you as they have to cart all your crap to the tip.

Typical sentence: "Pay attention my sassy singletons... it's only by experiencing a few cock-ups (and cocks up us) that we can be equipped to know what we want."

Verdict: A fist-bitingly badly written, and excruciatingly irritating book; neither modern, nor particularly maidenly.

Rating: Domestic help; finance & careers advice; relationship solutions; etiquette; style & beauty tips

The Goddess Guide
By Gisele Scanlon

Who? Scanlon is a Dublin-based journalist, who describes herself as a " writer, illustrator and seeker of all things stylish".

The ethos: The Goddess Guide is Scanlon's gift to you. Its cover appears to have been made from flock wallpaper. Inside, it's breathlessly enthusiastic and filled with her favourite domestic tips and the favourite things of her celebrity chums, such as Philip Treacy, Tracey Emin and Heston Blumenthal.

Best tip: If you've undercooked a boiled egg, but only discovered your folly after taking the lid off, put the cap back on, wrap it in clingfilm and put it back in the water.

Silliest tip: "Don't apply eye make-up in a moving car."

Typical sentence: "I've always been a collector, whether it's little nuggets of advice from world-renowned experts in the fashion and beauty industry, or matchboxes, pencils and receipts from hotel rooms – it's all pure gold to me."

Verdict: Scanlon is quite a name-dropper. That said, the book includes a couple of handy directories (facialists and vintage markets), and an excellent guide to packing.

Rating: Domestic help; e tiquette; style & beauty tips

The Grown-Up Girl's Guide to Life
By Jacqui Ripley
Piatkus Books

Who? Ripley is a health and beauty journalist who writes for magazines such as Now, InStyle, Cosmopolitan and Red.

The ethos: This book claims to help you through "the ups and downs of life, and deal with the many dilemmas that crop up in today's modern, go-getting world".

Best tip: "The smaller the pocket [on your jeans], the bigger your butt will look." And that's the BEST tip.

Silliest tip: Too many to choose from. They include: "One of the reasons breasts become droopy is down to the bra – or lack of it." Or, in another case of stating the bleeding obvious: "For an even-toned complexion, concealer is your answer."

Typical sentence: " Words can harm or they can warm. Keeping communication honest and direct can help earn you extra brownie points in life. There's nothing worse than hearing rent-a-dialogue that sounds unfeeling and shallow. "

Verdict: This book might be useful for starting a fire or propping a window open.

Rating: Etiquette; style & beauty tips

Hopscotch and Handbags: The Essential Guide to Being a Girl
By Lucy Mangan
Headline Review

Who? Mangan writes for The Guardian.

The ethos: It's hard to tell. This is more of a nostalgia trip, with several sentences that start with: "Do you remember...?"

Best observation: "The tongue is a strange organ. Used properly, it can propel you to the very heights of ecstasy. Wielded by a fevered adolescent boy – usually in a determined counter-clockwise motion, or stuck so far down your throat that you have to hope he likes the taste of liver – it is an appalling instrument of torture."

Most obvious observation: "Getting married is huge. "

Typical sentence: "Do you remember the Clearasil ads in those days? Two badly dubbed American teenagers passing bits of blue-stained cotton wool over their porcelain skins and then presenting to the camera the white fluff, which looked like it had been used to clean up an anthracite spill?"

Verdict: Funny, but pointless.

Rating: Domestic help; relationship solutions