Advice for a happy marriage II

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Time for Part 2 of my marriage advice trilogy. It's The Empire Strikes Back of marriage advice, if you will. Or maybe the Home Alone 2*. In other words, the youthful innocence of Part 1 has gone the way of Macaulay Culkin's boyish good looks and now it's time to cross over to the Dark Side: marriage advice, 1930s-style.

Among the many side-effects of getting engaged (as well as chronic haemorrhaging of the bank account and an addiction to Don't Tell The Bride) was a severe bout of nostalgia. I dusted off my parents' wedding album, had long chats with my paternal grandmother about her post-war nuptials, even cooed over pictures of Fin's sister as a child ensconced in a pink, frilly, 80s-tastic bridesmaid's dress. But my favourite piece of wedding history belonged to my Nana, my mum's mum, who was married in 1942. Behold the magnificence of The Bride's Book:

Published in 1938 and edited by the glamorous but terrifying Dorothy Stote, The Bride's Book was "created to help young people to make a success of their marriage". No small claim.

Frankly, it's almost too easy to make fun of it. I mean, I could probably just stop at the Contents page: "Selecting shoes that add to foot attractiveness." "Should you wear a girdle?" "Advantages of the suburbs." "Avoid complex mechanisms." "Making the kitchen attractive." "Jam will help." (help what?)

Read through modern eyes, The Bride's Book veers from the hilarious to the horrifying with every turn of the page. It has whole sections devoted to the proper use of the telephone and the removal of "Superfluous Hair", contains advice on selecting everything from bathing caps that flatter the face to linoleum colours for your bathroom, and describes a particular colour of carpet as "Nigger Brown" (yes, really). It's certainly a product of its time.

When she's not being casually racist, Dorothy Stote takes care to constantly remind the bride-to-be what her new role will entail. "The girl who marries takes on a job. She becomes the manager and, not infrequently, the staff as well, of a new undertaking." It is quite clear that caring for her husband and maintaining her home will be the new bride's full-time occupation. A Hoover advert in the book reminds us that "When the ring slips on your finger you take on a lot of responsibility. You are a wife, but you are a housewife too. You know you are going to have a lot more work." Oh goody, sounds wonderful.

The chapter entitled "Where to live" is a special treat. "In the average household it is the husband who goes off on the journey to business each morning and returns at night, and so it is only fair that his preference in the matter of where to live should be given first consideration". Er, forgive me Dorothy, but you just said he's not even going to be there half the time - how come he gets to choose? Oh, wait - I hadn't read the "Features to be Investigated" section:

"Distance of house from railway station.
London station to which trains come.
Nearness of that station to husband's office."

I see.

Unbelievably, Dorothy Stote's expertise extends beyond the trousseau and the home - she even advises on factors to consider when purchasing a car. Should you ever wish to escape the Utopian perfection of your marital home (perish the thought!), you must ensure that your choice of automobile is "governed by the ease with which the car can be driven". This is "even more important if Mrs. Newlywed is to drive it". (Is this the appropriate time to mention that I passed my driving test first time within five months of turning 17, while Fin passed on his third attempt, with my help, at age 25? No, perhaps not the time.)

As I said, the book was published in 1938. Within a few years the world would change beyond recognition; women would move into the workforce to fill the void left by men who marched off to war, and would never move back out of it again. Well, we all know it wasn't - and still isn't - quite as simple as that, but times have certainly changed since Dorothy Stote was considered an authority on cocktail recipes and sanitary knickers.

However, one thing hasn't changed at all in the last 80 years: the concept of the bride - and wife - as consumer. As well as words of wisdom, the book is packed with full-page adverts for everything from face powder to tinned soup. After all, as Dorothy puts it, "the prospective bride is a far more important influence in the business world than men usually realise". Don't worry, my dear, they've realised it now.

You can imagine my reaction as I leafed through The Bride's Book for the first time. Cue much giggling and barely-concealed scorn. But when I reached the back of the book, I hit the nostalgia jackpot. Neatly laid out in the back pages are handwritten lists of my grandparents' wedding guests, their addresses, their gifts; each one ticked off to indicate that an appropriate expression of gratitude had been composed and sent. There were even scribbled notes where my Nana checked her spelling (sorry Nana, even in 1938 I don't think it was spelled "accecptable").

Best of all, right at the very back, tucked away within the musty pages, were all of the gift cards, telegrams and letters the happy couple received. Beautiful little blue and cream cards, some of them embossed with silver birds and stars, and one even shaped like a shoe (a shoe!), all filled with best wishes, and congratulations, and elegant handwriting, and love.

My Nana died when I was six. I never had a chance to talk to her about this book, or her wedding, or anything much other than the extent of my love for Barbies and Wacaday. But I too had a book where I wrote out by hand a list of all my wedding guests, their addresses, their gifts, and ticked each one off as I laboured over my endless thank-you cards. I too have a box, sitting up in the top of my wardrobe, filled to bursting with every single card and gift tag we were given as we embarked on this crazy endeavour called marriage. The connection I feel to my Nana when I open her book, inhale its comforting old-book smell, run my finger down the lists that once upon a time she wrote, gives this book a value beyond words.

The opportunities I have been given and the aspirations I have for my life and my marriage might be very different from those of your average bride in 1938, or 1942, or 1968. It's so very easy to mock The Bride's Book and, by extension, the brides who bought it and used it to guide them on their married way. But perhaps we're not so different after all. Don't I like to look my best? Don't I want my home to be attractive? Don't I believe in the importance of thank-you cards and old-fashioned courtesy? I do.

So if I ever want to know how to make a lemon more juicy or how to remove candle-grease from fabric, I will not be ashamed to consult The Bride's Book. I might be glad that I have more options than to simply be an old-fashioned housewife, but that doesn't mean I can't pinch their secrets, every once in a while.

*If you include Home Alone 3 as part of the original series. Which, actually, I don't.

All of the beautiful photographs were taken especially for this post by my friend Kristen of What Kristen Saw. That's right, my first ever blogging collaboration! Woop woop! (That last photo is me trying to "act natural", and failing miserably. Sorry Kristen - I'll try to be a better model next time, promise.)


9 boats moored

  1. What a fantastic book! Partly for the laughs, mostly for your Nana's lists at the end.

    If you find any of the cleaning or cooking/cocktail-making tips useful, you'll share them, right? Man or woman, you can never be without too many cleaning or cooking (or especially cocktail-making) tips.

  2. Of course! A lot of the cocktails seem to involve eggs and vermouth, though, so don't get your hopes up...

  3. Me and my sister were slightly scarred by an older lady who described someone's bridesmaid dresses to us as "Nigger Brown" at a wedding fair we went to last year, that's right 2010, not 1938! On a nicer note, what an amazing find and something you must be so pleased to have. Inspired by this I might ask to see my grandparents wedding photots when I visit them this weekend!

    PS Home Alone 4 - don't even go there...

  4. Kirsty this book is real life treasure! I have a 1950's houswife's book that talks about the need for an electrified tablecloth in every household...terrifying! Love these photographs that Kristen has taken, they really bring the book alive xxx

  5. Woo hoo our first blogging collaboration! Love the article.

    Thanks Lucy for kind words bout my photos......need to improve on putting the model at ease, Kirsty just kept giggling!

  6. How lovely.... so appropriate as this week my Great uncle celebrated his 100th birthday and so I've been thinking alot about how life has changed for him. Great photos - and nails too!

  7. What a great find and a fantastic post it inspired. And how the world has (mostly) changed in such a short time. Amazing.

  8. My Dad has a similar book that he's kept about our family. It's an emotional and personal read. No 'handy' advice though!

    Also, don't knock the eggs and vermouth in cocktails - honestly! xx

  9. If I remember family lore correctly, Nana passed her driving exam at 17 as well - quite daring, back in the day. (from your DC-area cousin)