Orchids on Your Budget (or, Live Smartly on What You Have). I read this book a few years ago because I was intrigued by the title. No doubt things have changed since 1937, when Marjorie Hillis published this lovely and intelligent l’art de vivre book—I don’t believe purchasing an orchid will break the bank these days—yet, many things have not changed, and Hillis’ advice is timeless, down-to-earth, and delivered with a sense of humour. The central idea of the book is simple: figure out what you really, truly want, then go out and get it. Everything else, the things you kind of want, or think that you should want, you can discard. How liberating is that?
I remember reading, and re-reading, the chapter “Please Dress.” I was going through a transitional phase—from maternity leave to work in a new job—and was desperate for some good advice. Hillis begins her chapter with the remark, “We aren’t going to make a budget, or even a plan. Budgets presuppose that you are […] naked with a chequebook” (41). I laughed out loud. You won’t find any dull plans here. Her emphasis is on respecting your individuality, which extends not only to choosing the styles that are most flattering to you, but also to choosing what suits your lifestyle. Blindly following trends and dressing for the life you wish you had, both of which have caused me to be dressed in a ridiculous and unflattering manner on more than a few occasions, are not recommended! Whilst you could argue that her specific examples of what to wear are dated, presupposing that women’s daily accessories include gloves and hats, I found this little window into 1930s fashion thoroughly enjoyable.
The classic principles of building a stylish wardrobe are still discussed, and they’re classics for a reason. As she puts it, “The basic rules behind any smart budget wardrobe may be pretty old, but they’ve got a lot of wear in them yet. There’s the old saw (tell us if you haven’t heard this one before) about building your wardrobe around one colour. You may have learned that one just after the alphabet …” (37).
With breezily titled chapters that include “Well, Who Isn’t Poor?” and “Can You Afford a Husband?”, as well as a little quiz called “Are You Thrifty or Stingy?”, the book covers all aspects of modern, everyday life, and the kinds of decisions most of us have to make, whether it’s what to eat for dinner, or if and how we can manage to travel. I enjoyed her little life observations, too, which include “Anything from a Yogi gathering to a picnic can be interesting if you have an open mind” (126) and “Generosity has a curious way of paying back with interest” (87).
I think Hillis’ ideas work for me because she acknowledges that all of us are individuals. I don’t need, or even want a 5-bedroom house and a swish car. I do want to the time to write—possibly one of the most costly acquisitions ever—and I do love to travel. At the moment, my chances to do either of these things is extremely limited, because I also want my kids to live in a safe neighbourhood and attend good schools, and that, as it turns out, means hefty mortgage payments on a house that seems to require endless repairs (an opportunity to learn some DIY skills, perhaps). The point is, these are the choices I’ve made. They work for me.
Roses, rather than orchids!
Hillis in fact wrote a whole series of books, and led a pretty interesting life herself. Check out Joanna Scutts’ excellent “Second Glance: The Daringly Sensible Marjorie Hillis“, in which Scutts notes that “on the whole the book is pragmatically feminist in its argument that managing your money and exercising your independence are one and the same thing, and that, in the burned and sober years after the Crash, no woman could afford to live in blissful ignorance as a man took care of her money” (para 7).
Over the next few weeks, I’m going to talk about two of my favourite l’art de vivre authors: Jennifer L. Scott’s, whose Madame Chic series I adore, and Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying, which really is quite magical.