Agony Aunts

Agony Aunts – Mention “Agony Aunts” to me and the inevitable image that comes to mind is of a matronly “Marjorie Proops” type more prone to spouting the obvious than advising with any real authority.  However, Marjorie probably remains the best-known agony aunt – at least of her generation – in the UK, not only a friend to all her readers but also succeeding in establishing herself as the nation’s confidante

Today, when I pick up a newspaper or magazine there are always two areas that I know I am certain to visit at some point throughout my read: horoscopes and the problem page. Many of us like to ponder over other people’s dilemmas and problems, be they marriage difficultiesfriendship issuessexual concerns, or just worries about life in general. Because there is also an element of anonymity involved it allows us to “raise the roof” on someone else’s problem without feeling guilty about it. After all, we love good gossip now and again – guys as much as girls, no matter how much they protest to the contrary. 

In short, nowadays if you contact an agony aunt, you are likely to get good advice, understanding and support. But it hasn’t always been that way.  

Almost 350 years ago a magazine publisher called John Dunton was the first to hit on the idea that his readers’ own dramas were much more interesting than politics or current affairs – as well as a very cost-effective way of filling his papers. Thus the first agony column – and interactive magazine – was born in the form of the ‘Athenian Mercury’, which dealt with all kinds of topics like science, religion, love, marriage and sex. It proved so popular that Dunton had to do what many advice columnists would do after him and hire writers (of both sexes) to help him. One of them was that infamous pen-for-hire Daniel Defoe, who in 1704 started up the Review and became its “Agony Uncle“. More and more publications warmed to this natty device – which attracted readers while getting them to do half the work by filling up pages. By the 1740s, however, female advisers had come to the fore, and the popularity of Mrs. Eliza Haywood, romantic novelist and editor of the Female Spectator, and Miss Frances Moore, editor of the Old Maid, established the tradition of advice columns as a primarily female preserve.

When author Tanith Carey was researching for her first book about motherhood, she discovered a problem page in a parenting magazine from 1915. The agony aunt was telling one poor mum that babies should be picked up as little as possible before the age of one because it overstimulates them! 

As a parenting journalist, Tanith was really shocked because “it’s so different to what we know now”  – as well as slightly amused by the tone of absolute certainty employed to write it! Taking this on board Tanith decided to look into this subject further. Having trawled through the archives of magazines and many long-forgotten newspapers Tanith found fascinating examples, many of them ludicrous when compared to our modern perspective and illustrating just how much times have changed. 

Anyone who eulogises about the good old days is so much better might not want to reference some of these suggestions in support of their argumentTanith’s new book “Never Kiss a Man in Canoe: Words of Wisdom from the Golden Age of Agony Aunt” is a collection of some of the worst ever agony aunt replies from days gone by. It relates back to a time when agony aunts played a crucial role in educating, demonstrating and scolding the masses. From advice on the immorality of reading a crime novel or riding a bike to Sunday school etiquette and how to make a boy into a man, this book is a short sharp shock to anyone accustomed to the politically correct advice of today. It features some of the harshest, most brutal – and sometimes just plain wrong answers – to problems posed by our grandmothers and great-grandmothers. 

In short, it is a blunt, no-nonsense approach to an age long past and it certainly makes you glad that times have moved on. 

Quotes from the book include:

To a man concerned about whether cycling is a sin (1885) 
“If it is the only means of reaching the church on Sunday it may be excusable. On the other hand, if walking or riding in the usual way is discarded for the sake of the exercise or exhilaration bicycle riding affords, it is clearly wrong” 

To a woman “bored stiff” after 3 years of marriage (1929) 
“Leave your work, stay at home and run your house, and have a baby as soon as possible. Then you will find what marriage means.”                To a school girl claiming she has fallen in love (1933) 
“Fiddlesticks and nonsense!..At your age, you ought to be thinking about your ‘House’, winning the Hockey match, or the conjugation of the verb to be.”

To a boy whose father forbids him to smoke at home (1959) 
“I’d have a talk with your mother……Your mother might bring him round!”

A beautifully packaged hardback, “Never Kiss a Man in  Canoe  – Words of Wisdom from the Golden Age of Agony Aunts” 

Poppy Watt  

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