I want to be alone...

What could a 1930s guide to the pleasures of being single possibly teach a Noughties girl? Plenty, actually, says Catherine Townsend
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

When I realised that a new lifestyle bible for the single girl advocated taking up croquet as a way of meeting friends and potential partners, I had serious doubts that it would have anything useful to offer a woman in 21st-century Britain. But Live Alone and Like It: The Classic Guide for the Single Woman, written by Marjorie Hillis, a former American Vogue writer, and with chapter headings such as "The Pleasures of a Single Bed", "A Lady and her Liquor", and "Solitary Refinement", is surprisingly modern (even if it does say that flying solo is something that need only be done "now and then between husbands").

Live Alone and Like It was originally published in 1936, between the two major waves of the feminist movement, the achievement of suffrage after the First World War, and women's liberation in the 1960s. While, in the past, single women had been derided as old maids, Marjorie's contemporaries were driving cars, drinking martinis and working in factories.

Although I have been living alone for the past decade, since I was 16, and am as guilty of slipping into hibernation mode as the next girl, I decided to follow her advice to the letter for a week. After all, as Marjorie says: "Hermits and other self-sufficient people may be geniuses, and contribute greatly to the world, but they contribute practically nothing to its entertainment, and have a very dull time themselves."

Far from portraying singletons as pathetic Bridget Jones-types crying into their chardonnay, Marjorie says that anyone feeling bored and lonely should take a hard look at their own lack of initiative before consulting a therapist. Even though Sigmund Freud may have been published at the time Marjorie was writing, she was too busy whipping up canapés and dashing off to art galleries to read him.

As I read her section on home entertaining, I begin to realise that I have been using my shoebox-sized apartment as an excuse not to invite people over. But Marjorie says that small parties, even in a "one-room apartment with a hole-in-the-wall kitchen", are often the most fun. I'm also feeling guilty about all those unreciprocated dinner-party invitations, especially when she warns that: "Enjoying your friends' drinks, but never serving any, feels like another form of sponging."

I decide to throw caution to the wind and throw a cocktail party. I'm a bit daunted when I realise, belatedly, that Marjorie assumes that many women have live-in maids ("Don't worry about how to make this dish - any competent maid will be able to handle it"). But her tips about entertaining in a small space are very relevant, and luckily she doesn't expect me to morph into a Thirties version of Nigella Lawson. I should be able to throw a fantastic party with nothing more than some crackers, spreads in jars, cute knives, cheap glass plates, and a few bottles of spirits. She recommends sticking to the classic liquors like Scotch, gin and vermouth, rather than fruit juice-based cocktails. Otherwise, you risk a "Morning After", her term for a hangover.

Even though I run out of ice and chicken wings (bought in a last-minute panic after realising that I had no "appetisers"), the party is a raging success. "We should do this more often," says my friend Natasha, while my new cocktail-shaker gives a recent crush the opportunity to show me how to make a Manhattan.

But while Marjorie's party tips may be right on target, her advice for getting people to leave turn out to be a bit dated. In the chapter headed "Etiquette for a Lone Woman" she tackles the tough subject of how to get rid of a gentleman caller. She suggests offering him a glass of water, then standing up until he gets the message. "There is little danger that you will have to call the elevator man or open the window and scream," she writes. In my experience, nothing short of a burning building will deter a man who thinks he's got a shot at sex. I find that using the more blunt, "Get out, I need to sleep", while smiling sweetly, works much better.

Although she is far too refined to discuss anything other than sleeping in the bedroom, Marjorie hints that tidying up can improve your love life, writing: "If even the most respectable spinsters would regard their bedrooms as places where anything might happen, the resulting effect would be extremely beneficial." I turn my attentions to my flat. Pointing out that clutter is "as dated as modesty", Marjorie insists that maintaining a chic, inviting home is much more important for the single girl than for others." I begin with an early spring clean, taking great pleasure in throwing out unnecessary junk - old clothes, magazines, and an ex-boyfriend's bad pottery that he said I should hang on to "in case I ever become famous".

My decade-old grey tracksuit has to go, too, because Marjorie "can think of nothing more depressing than going to bed in a washed-out four-year-old nightgown, and nothing more bolstering to the morale than going to bed all fragrant with toilet-water and wearing a luscious pink satin nightgown, well-cut and trailing".

I'm still not sure what a bed-jacket is, and I definitely don't have the recommended two négligées. But Marjorie does inspire me to go to Agent Provocateur for more "sleepwear", and to unearth the Egyptian-cotton sheets that I have been saving for guests. I use them every night, and feel much more fabulous - and ready for male guests.

I may not have taken to wearing a "jaunty hat" this week, but I certainly feel more glamorous. And I now know how to make a great highball. But the best part about Marjorie's book is that she doesn't promise to revolutionise our lives, melt away 10lb, or help us to snag a man. She simply suggests that we develop hobbies and become more cultured in order to have a richer social life, which is as important today as in 1936. "If you're interesting, you'll have plenty of friends, and if you're not, you won't, unless you're very, very rich," she says. Apparently, some things never change.

'Live Alone and Like It: The Classic Guide for the Single Woman' is republished by Virago on 10 March (£10)