Before the 19th century, such advice would have been unthinkable. Earlier, marriage was primarily an economic arrangement; most people made a living on family farms or in small shops, which no one could run alone. Some people never married, but they were exceptions: the very wealthy or the eccentric bachelor uncle who lived in the spare room. In the 19th century, massive structural changes — the growth of industry, the movement of vast numbers of people from farms to cities and the increasing dependence on individual wage labor — made it possible for people to work and support themselves without the aid of a family.
As single people became more numerous, advice books for single people began to appear, and they remain popular to this day. I wondered how advice to single people had changed throughout the years, and what these changes — or lack thereof — can tell us. And why do so many of these advice manuals specifically focus on single women?
In 2015, researchers at the British Library unearthed an 1899 manual called “Advice to Single Women.” It was written by a male physician, Haydn Brown, and I assumed it would be comically old-fashioned. Women have achieved so much since it was first published: We can now own property in all 50 states. We can vote, control our fertility, run for public office and work in virtually any profession. I read Brown’s manual in tandem with contemporary guides for single women and discovered it was not quite the historical curiosity I had suspected.
Brown subscribes to the unquestioned sexism of his era. He presumes that women naturally possess “nervousness and timidity” and want a husband who is “in many ways mightier.” Such comments will make the modern reader roll her eyes. But one of his chief points — that women should not sacrifice health for beauty — sounds disturbingly up-to-date. He rails against the habit of tight-lacing corsets to achieve tiny waists, arguing that the practice is harmful to breathing, digestion, movement and proper development. Substitute “eating disorders” for “tight-lacing,” and Brown’s advice barely needs updating.
On the subject of marriage, Brown is both amusingly Victorian and startlingly modern. Many of his reasons for favoring marriage are still cited today: tradition, comfort and general well-being. Another argument sounds less convincing to contemporary ears: In marriage, he says, sex is “kept down to a reasonable and harmless minimum, because of the remarkable and peculiar provision of nature, which renders all things that are unvarying less sensuously attractive and enticing than those that present differences.” Modern commentators consider this one of the disadvantages of marriage, yet Brown considers that a positive. He also does not think that marriage is necessary for men or women. He encourages women to work, and he praises single career women who “can afford to snap their fingers at lost lovers, and thank the fate that designed them for a life of single success rather than the possible one of married misery.”
By comparison, the more contemporary popular article “Marry Him! The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough,” which was expanded into a best-selling book in 2010, sounds positively retrograde. The author, Lori Gottlieb, a single mother in her 40s, regrets not marrying when she was younger and wants to save other women from her fate, which she compares to being in a coma after drinking and driving. Gottlieb tells single women that their dreams of romantic love are childish fantasies; rather they should grow up and settle: “That’s right. Don’t worry about passion or intense connection. … Based on my observations, settling will probably make you happier in the long run.”
Most of her argument is “based on her observations.” Instead of data, Gottlieb provides personal anecdotes and scare tactics. She assumes that all women over age 30 are terrified by the prospect of spinsterhood — and if they are not, they should be. “If you say you’re not worried, either you’re in denial or you’re lying,” she writes. Gottlieb quotes “experts” to bolster her arguments, but many of these experts — professional matchmakers, dating coaches — have a vested interest in stoking women’s fears. Even the academics she quotes frequently provide opinions or untested theories rather than hard data.
Some of Gottlieb’s advice is simply common sense: Don’t reject a person because he doesn’t make you swoon at first meeting. And don’t expect a mature relationship to be a constant swoon-fest.
But she discounts any information that might challenge her assumptions. She dismisses as deluded women who say they would rather be alone than settle. She provides scant evidence that settling will make women happy; indeed, some studies show that depression is highest among unhappily married women. She has many anecdotes from women who wish they had settled, but none from women who are happy they did not. (I can provide one, if needed; I remained happily single till I fell in love and married at age 38.) Could I find advice books that had a more positive view of single life, books that did not urge single women to panic if they wished to marry, or to apologize if they did not?
I found such a perspective in another best-selling author, Mandy Hale, whose book “The Single Woman: Life, Love and a Dash of Sass” is a bracing riposte to Gottlieb. Hale urges single women to pursue their dreams and keep their standards high; she even defines singleness as being “too strong, too smart, and too fabulous to settle.” She scorns the scare tactics that Gottlieb employs and proclaims: “We might not have Prince Charming kneeling in front of us with a glass slipper, but we can afford to buy our own sassy stilettos and escort ourselves to the ball.”
Hale’s work is even more anecdote-driven and data-free than Gottlieb’s. She dispenses her advice with missionary zeal, the only proof being that it works for her and her friends. There is also a defensive edge to her relentless chirpiness, as though she’d honed her arguments after too many blind dates arranged by well-meaning friends. After a while, she reminded me of the stories that Londoners told about the Blitz: People would sing “Roll Out the Barrel” at the top of their lungs to drown out the sound of bombs.
So what can the modern woman learn from advice manuals that celebrate the single life (as Hale does), condemn it (as Gottlieb does), or are somewhere in between (like Brown’s)? They show an important historical trend: In the 19th century, single people began to form a class of their own. Marriage was now a choice, and standards became higher.
The notion of the “companionate marriage” became popular, the idea that marriage should be based on love and companionship rather than financial necessity. This gave women in particular a freedom that was previously unknown. In earlier times, most women married because that was the best way they had to make a living; many women had marriages arranged by their fathers, and the few who remained single were often forced to live in male-headed households, as servants or poor relations. Women in those days might have assumed that they would marry, but they did not expect marriage to bring happiness.
Now we do. This freedom of choice gives us the possibility of creating our own happiness, within marriage or without it, but it is a choice fraught with risk and uncertainty. Some people happily forgo marriage altogether, while others wait for a grand amour who never comes. This freedom to choose — and the uncertainty it engenders — still causes both celebration and concern.