Glancing through the extensive How-to-find-Mr-Right section in a bookshop, the last thing I’d think single women needed was another self-help volume. Particularly one beamed straight from the Victorian era, when women were groomed to be nothing more than fragile wallflowers .
But this week an advice manual for 19th-century single ladies is being reprinted and its publishers say modern women can learn from it. The British Library discovered in its archives Advice to Single Women, written – by a man – in 1899, and was surprised to find how relevant his pearls of wisdom are for contemporary relationships.
Little is known about the author, Haydn Brown, but it seems he had women’s interests at heart. Despite marriage in the 1800s being deemed to be a young woman’s most important career move, he is intent on relieving them of the urgency. Don’t rush, he tells them, wait until you are at least 21. Brown may not have been prophetic enough to give tips on responding to Facebook messages or eliciting communication on Tinder, but he does give some crucial dating tips: play it cool. “Nothing is so fatal as a ticket stuck in a hat, on which is written: 'I want to marry…’,” he writes.
Plus ça change! Modern bestsellers are based on this very mantra. Remember The Rules by Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider? The fail-safe way to win a man, they advised millions of women in the Nineties, is never to chase. And I bet every woman, everywhere, has been told at least once by a friend to resist the urge to reply to a text.
While we may smile that the Victorians shared the same dating advice as us, we should really be asking why women need this rudimentary advice in the first place? We are not desperate by nature. We only make hints about rings because we are sold a myth that singletons inevitably turn into old maids. We are groomed to believe that we will be socially and financially worse off without a hard-working, solvent husband, and that we will grow old with cats if we don’t find someone, right now.
It is true that single women are no longer overtly relegated to second-class citizenship as they once were – unable to take out a loan, locked away in an asylum for being pregnant out of wedlock. Yet it still lurks beneath the surface, that fear of spinsterhood, and for Victorian women the fear of not marrying ran deep.
Brown tries to explain that there are other paths. “Single life isn’t that bad after all”, he writes, adding that “singleness permits of greater and more valuable concentration in work, and it avoids the innumerable little worries inseparable from parent-hood”.
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How very modern – a man who believes that sexual allure need not always be faked, or grounded in artificial discomfort. A pity he couldn’t have had a word with the organisers of the Cannes Film Festival where , this week, women were turned away from a screening for not wearing high-heeled shoes .
Brown is an admirable author – not for his dating advice or even his insights, but for his boldness in recommending that the women of the time should ignore their fears of staying single. How depressing that his advice is so similar to what we are offered in self-help books today. Clearly, we have not made as much progress as we might have thought.
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