Advice dished out by agony aunts and uncles from the 1850s to 1960s demonstrates how much has changed – and how much has stayed the same, argues Sian Norris
This charming collection of agony aunt (and uncle) advice from the 1850s to the 1960s would make a fantastic present for anyone interested in social history, attitudes towards men and women in the last 150 years, or as a companion book to dip into to discover something more about what women and men were, and still are, concerned by when it comes to love, relationships, family, fashion and health.
The collection has been compiled by Tanith Carey, who introduces Never Kiss a Man in a Canoe: Words of Wisdom from the Golden Age of Agony Aunts by explaining her interest in problem pages, and how this book explores the evolution of the agony aunt column, to its place in magazines today. She praises the modern problem page for being a sanctuary that women can turn to with emotional upsets or psychological problems, something that, she suggests, was missing in the matronly and rather strict messages of the advisors of Victorian Britain. Personally, I find this praise of modern problem pages fairly, well, problematic. It seems to me that although agony aunt columns are and can be a real help to women, often their advice is just as patriarchal or dare I say it sexist as their stiff upper lipped, corseted ancestors. For example, Tracey Cox recently advised a woman who was concerned about her lack of sex drive or sexual desire for her husband to give him “duty shags” as “your husband has the right to expect sex”.
Elsewhere, bridal and women’s magazines regularly tell women who express a concern that their fiancé might visit a strip club (or worse) on their stag-do to just put up with it because “that’s what men do”. Something in fact, that led to me and other members of Bristol Feminist Network flyering women’s mags with Object’s Stripping the Illusion text. I accept that in offering women advice on some issues, problem pages have come a long way, but there are areas where they still maintain the status quo and traditional narratives about what men and women should and shouldn’t do.
Honourable mention should go though to the now defunct Just 17 which, despite becoming more and more commercial in later life, always had great problem page advice. They never told readers writing in to say they thought they might be gay that they were “going through a phase”, but instead gave helpful information about where to find other young gay people, and explained to young women that periods were not in fact the end of the world but just part of being a woman and nothing to worry about. I always remember those two letters, I don’t know why. Probably because it was such refreshingly good advice…
Anyway, back to the book.
The collection is split into a number of sections ranging from love and relationships, to etiquette, marriage and babies, work and health. But, as you would expect, most of the letters do relate to love and relationships, just as they do today.
As well as being hilarious at times, it is fascinating to witness through the prism of these letters how attitudes changed over 110 years, and have changed even more in the 40/50 years since, but also to see how much has stayed the same. Early letters explain to young women how important the rules of etiquette are when dealing with ‘men’ (who are painted as a cross between the bogeyman and Prince Charming) – leading to the book’s title that a woman should “never kiss a man in a canoe” (and in a host of other situations) for fear of giving the wrong impression.
It sounds silly, it sounds archaic, it sounds like the kind of advice we in the freewheeling, sexually liberated 21st century can scoff at as old fashioned, uptight nonsense. Until, that is, you compare it to dating bible The Rules, which also packs its pages full of caution of “giving in too easily” and “giving the man the wrong impression” and therefore ruining the mystery that will attract said man into your arms.
The sections on health and appearance are both terrifying and very, very funny. Cures for everything from baldness to ‘fat fingers’ are offered in a tone of definite confidence and knowledge. Did you know that slender fingers could be attained by wearing tight gloves, for example? Or that you could make your legs longer by lying flat on your back? According to Punch there is no cure for red noses in men, but if you’re a woman you have more of a chance… It is in these areas that we see how the real changes in problem pages have manifested themselves – such quack advice we (hopefully) no longer see in problem pages (but perhaps in the right wing press?) and in fact, I think a lot of agony aunts can be praised for giving sensible and positive medical advice.
A similar area where we see a great change in society’s opinions and the style of advice is for how to deal with babies and child rearing. These days we are aware of the importance of learning through play, bonding with your baby and generally spending time with your children. Not so for our stern advisors of old however! The common advice right up into the 20th century was to prevent children from playing too much (it tires their brains, preventing healthy growth), that you shouldn’t pick up your baby too much (again, over stimulation is bad for their brains) and that if you have a precocious child, don’t encourage it. Again, this would over stimulate them, causing them to become exhausted and leading to dullness in adulthood. It seems surreal to us to read advice that so goes against the grain of what we expect today, but equally its fascinating, and of course, poses the question, what advice will the next generation be following? How far will our social ‘norms’ change again in the future?
It is also a fascinating exploration into how manners and etiquette have changed over the years. I have always been interested by etiquette manuals from the 1920s and this collection allows us to see how strict and important the rules of manners were in society. Again, it is perhaps in this area that we see great changes, no-one would leave a card to say they’ve called round to visit in the Twitter, texting, Facebook-ing UK of 2010, nor would we be concerned with having an older woman chaperone at a party if we were planning on inviting single men and single women.
As I said, it sometimes seems that in the areas of sex and relationships we see the greatest differences, whilst also noticing clear similarities in attitudes. For example, just as in the problem pages of history, today’s media messages still position women as the one to be pursued, men to do the pursuing. Books such as He’s just not that into you and The Rules reflect the same norms, that women should be passive in the sexual game, with the man in charge. A lot of advice to young wives and fiancées expressing concern about whether they’re pretty or clever enough for their husband/boyfriend are reassured by the words “after all, he chose you”, a suggestion that they are the passive selectee in the relationship, a role that women are often still expected to fulfil today.
Rather than as autonomous, independent individuals, just as in the early 20th century we are increasingly seeing women in terms of their relationships to men, for example the WAGs and political wives of the election and World Cup.
In fact, often it felt like the most enjoyable and refreshing letters were the stern, matronly finger-wagging of the Victorian agony aunts and uncles who chastised young girls for mooning over some young man and encouraged them instead to spend less time thinking about boys and more time devoting their energy to work (charitable, helping at home, rather than a career of course!) and improving themselves. It seems really harsh, but in some ways it is a precursor to the feminist messages of not allowing yourself to be defined by a man, instead being your own person. I admit this probably wasn’t their aim, and I am of course not saying that problems with boyfriends and relationships aren’t important, but there was something about their ‘pull yourself together and get some self respect’ attitude that made me smile.
The same goes for their advice on beauty – which they saw as vanity. Although cures for red noses and fat fingers abound, there is also a strong message in the older letters about accepting and liking the way you look. Although this is sometimes added to an ‘after all, he married you!’ message which is less empowering, the letters often offer comfort to women who are concerned about their looks. But again, perhaps where we see the modern parallel is when women who want to be slim are met with reassurances such ast “I like a plump, rosy cheeked girl.” This really reminded me of the problem page advice staple – real women have curves! – after all, replacing one body ideal with another is no better than promoting the skinny ideal.
In letters written about depression and mental health issues we see a real change for the better. Here the ‘get on with it girl!’ tone was a signifier of how far we have come in recognising depression as a very real and very important issue, and I imagine a lot of people get a lot of help and comfort from a more sympathetic and sensible agony aunt than their unhappy predecessors.
The housewife’s letter is a common one in the later periods of the book – particularly in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. On the one hand it may seem that there has been a great leap in attitudes towards women’s role in marriage, if we dig a little deeper we can see that the same prejudices leak into our lives and perceptions of gender roles. So, for example, a husband writes that his wife doesn’t wash up the dishes and is reassured that she is “thoughtless”. Is that so different from the arguments stay-at-home mums face today? Is the hearty lecturing on a wife’s duties that much different from Tracey Cox directing a woman to lie back and think of England? And the wife on the pedestal, the ultimate feminine ideal sighed over by the agony aunts in the letters as a woman’s ultimate aim, her real, female purpose, is it that much different from The Rules, from He’s Just Not That Into You? From the portrays of WAGs and SamCam, and the bridal magazines that tell a woman to not complain if her fiancé wants to go look at naked women on his stag do?
The sour taste I had in my mouth reading these letters was often the sad realisation of how far we haven’t come. After all, even in 2010, the Madonna-whore dynamic is still alive and well, he’s still a stud and she’s still a slut, just like the tutted-at young girl in the ’60s who’s writing to find out how she can get her boyfriends into her flat without her landlady realising. We might not prize virginity in secular, Western society as we once did, but we still see frowns at truly sexually liberated women (Abby Lee anyone?), if not at the commodified, commercialised portrayal of sexuality we see on magazine covers.
Perhaps it is because I am a feminist and read the book with these thoughts in mind. But it does show you that you can – if you want to – do a deeper reading of this book as a piece of social history and representation of social attitudes. You can also read it as a bit of fun, because it certainly is that as well. Particularly the letter where the advisor rather huffily writes that they “will not deal with toilet issues on this page”. Comedy gold!