This month sees the publication of the latest in a glut of follow-these-simple-rules-for-a-better-life books, their "unique" selling point: tips from times past. The Perfect Hostess: Perfectly Charming Etiquette Advice - an almost direct reprint of a 1930s book by Rose Henniker-Heaton - is the apotheosis of what could be described as nostalgia publishing. These books centre on the home, they offer domestic advice and the era most often raided for inspiration seems to be the Fifties. The catch however is that, unlike The Perfect Hostess, most of these books are not reprints. They have been written by women of my generation, in the 21st century. What is going on?
I'm talking about books like House Rules and Domestic Bliss. A typical sentence from House Rules: The Stylish Guide to Running a Home and Having a Life by Clare Coulson (2005) reads like this: "Most of us fantasise about a domestic idyll where we bake cakes on a Saturday afternoons and friends come round in the evening and marvel at our delicious canapés... the reality is that many of us don't know where to begin." Over the next 280-odd pages advice is given on how to do so. And whether it's baking, ironing or "detoxing a toxic wardrobe" each topic, no matter how banal, is treated with house-mistressy rigour .
What bothers me, apart from the nauseating pastel-pink book jacket, is the assumption that "we" all want to live out a fantasy from the 1950s. Since when? I don't want to swap my iPod for a mint-green radio and I certainly don't want to find myself thinking: "Right, I'm going to iron my sheets." Who has the inclination to obsess about pillowcases? And more to the point, who has the time?
Cultural commentator Peter York regards the recent deluge of domestic goddess books as a middle-class trend. "It's Marie Antoinette; it's decorative and done as therapy. Making fairy cakes is fine, but in an economic sense it's a nonsense. If you had a tough job and no child-care you wouldn't have time. It's doing it as a luxury because you don't have to - whereas 40 years ago there was no choice."
In Domestic Bliss, Rita Konig talks of "styling one's life". Her tips include "decant washing up liquid into an olive oil bottle" to "having a mélange of antique bedlinen". When she suggests her perfect week - Sunday cinema, Monday TV supper, Tuesday get some people over because it is the "dreariest of nights" - you have to remember something. These ideas are from someone who admits she used to spend hours organising her "mother's glass cupboard". It's a manifesto of perfectionism; it's the Stepford Wives, only without the black humour. I object to being told "how to live" by Konig, and how to "have a life" by Coulson. I say get a life. I can't understand why women of my age are writing books like this. The tone of voice used is so straight-laced, it's as if they've taken the most anachronistic elements of boarding school and distilled them into a book. They're peddling an image of cake-baking and tea parties where people swan around in frilly aprons. It's a doctrine of a so-called perfect life, but not one I want to live.
Brought to book
'House Rules: The Stylish Guide to Running a Home and Having a Life' by Clare Coulson, Bantam Press, £12.99
With chapters on "how lead a crease-free life" to "the fundamentals of a good night's sleep", Coulson has got insider tips from people like Lulu Guiness and Kelly Hoppen. Good if you want to organise your toiletries, bad if you're looking for a laugh.
'The Perfect Hostess: Perfectly Charming Etiquette Advice' by Rose Henniker-Heaton, Conran Octopus, £9.99
Etiquette from another era, the author devotes a page to how to prepare lunch for the woman your husband nearly married. And under things a husband ought to know, "how to make excuses for you over the telephone". Frivolous and fun.
'Domestic Bliss: How To Live', by Rita Konig, Ebury, £16
Top tips on how to wrap presents ("feathers and artificial flowers add a lot of flair") and bringing cakes into work because "office life can get so tedious". Enjoyable if you're fascinated with life on another planets.
'Manners', 'Style' and 'Occasions' a trio of books by Kate Spade, Simon & Schuster, £12.99 each
An American handbag designer's take on what to wear and how to behave in tricky social situations. Spade says: "Exercise your manners 365 days a year." No slacking now ladies.Reuse content