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It's agony - 150 years of absurd advice
7:00am Saturday 2nd January 2010 in Lifestyle
Some problems can be solved by friends, others are best left to the agony aunt. We speak to Tanith Carey, author of Never Kiss A Man in a Canoe: Words of Wisdom from the Golden Age of the Agony Aunt, and look at the special place of agony aunts in society from the mid-19th century to today.
By Trisha Andres.
Burning off the Christmas bulge in 2010 is a cinch thanks to gym classes and the Wii Fit, but back in the 1920s women didn't have so many options.
Wondering how to lose that muffin-top you've gained over the festive season? Try frantically rolling on the floor to whittle away that unwanted belly, advised one agony aunt in 1928.
Unsure of your career prospects in the coming year? An agony aunt could surely point you in the right direction. But one woman in 1870 seeking advice on whether to pursue her poetic ambitions received a response which said: "If the two pieces that you sent are a fair sample of what you can do, give up writing 'poetry' at once."
Or maybe you're a young mother in need of coaching? Agony aunts of yore apparently knew best. One warned mothers in 1915 against picking up one's child, declaring: "It excites the brain. For the next six months, they should be left undisturbed."
One journalist was so shocked by this age-old advice that she felt compelled to write a book. Tanith Carey, author of Never Kiss A Man In A Canoe: Words Of Wisdom From The Golden Age Of Agony Aunts, trawled through an archive of magazines to discover a vast amount of absurd advice from the Victorian and Edwardian times.
She says: "I realised how much bad advice has been dispensed all these years. This book is basically an anthology of the worst and silliest advice ever handed out from the 1850s onwards."
Carey charts agony aunthood from the mid-19th century through to the 1960s. Apart from being good for a hoot on a hen night, she saw the book as a glimpse into the lives, dilemmas and anxieties of people from a bygone era.
"All the quotes are quite humorous but they also say something about the times they were written in and the various problems and insights into lives of people."
Never Kiss A Man In A Canoe is a compendium of advice dispensed during the "golden age" of agony aunts, which began in the mid-19th century. It was around the 1850s that mass literacy - thanks to Victorian education laws and proliferation of magazines via mass publishing - gave way to the creation of the agony aunt.
The original agony aunt, though, was created as early as 1691 when a magazine publisher called John Dunton realised that real people's dilemmas held more mass appeal than current affairs or politics.
He introduced the first agony column in his magazine The Athenian Mercury but soon found being inundated with piles of letters so unmanageable that he launched The Ladies' Mercury, which was dedicated solely to women's conundrums.
In the mid-19th century, the role of the agony aunt was paramount. With Victorian rigidity barring people from openly confiding problems that may have been considered embarrassing or taboo, they were left to their own devices.
"Agony aunts were important in the mid-19th century because people didn't have a lot of other sources of information," explains Carey.
"They couldn't talk openly with other communities so they didn't have the shared wisdom that we have now. So if you had a problem, you couldn't just go on the internet and Google a question."
Agony aunts thought their role was to maintain the moral tone and social conventions of the times and the publications they were writing for. Society was defined by rules, and agony aunts were preservers of those rules and norms. Carey explains: "Agony aunts were quite high-handed and authoritarian... they were a bit despotic then."
For example, one agony aunt writing in Home Sweet Home in 1894 snapped: "No, I have no respect for a girl who tries to get a husband through a matrimonial agency. 'Tudor Lass', it would be better to die an old maid than to descend to such means of getting a husband."
Advice in The Weekly Magazine in 1859 to a bride and poetess, whose work and domestic life were somewhat in conflict, read: 'Your duty now is to your husband. No wife should have a soul above buttons [which means above sewing them on] nor should she ignore the fact that man's heart lies very near his stomach, and that cold mutton dampens the flame of wedded love."
Fast-forward to the 1960s, when advice became less draconian and more sensible and sympathetic with the arrival of the birth control pill.
"What happened in the 1960s is that women had more control over their lives because of the pill," says Carey. "Agony aunts had no choice but to keep up with the times."
Legendary Daily Mirror agony aunt Marge Proops led the way by talking about sex in a forthright, non-prudish way and used her column to campaign for women's issues, notably the provision of rape suites [comfortable rooms for being interviewed in] and use of contraception.
Clare Rayner of The Sun and the Sunday Mirror, on the other hand, committed her campaigning efforts to penning more than 90 books on health issues including, amongst others, recognition of depression and safe abortions.
Another well-known agony aunt first at Woman then at Capital and Talk Radio, Anna Raeburn, was also a campaigner for women's rights, particularly for legal abortion.
The sexual revolution of the 1970s and 1980s defined the role of the agony aunt. Carey explains: "There was a sexual revolution and the agony aunts' role was to guide people through it. They were a bit more relaxed and constructive rather than prescriptive and definite."
But with the arrival of the internet in the 1990s, and the onslaught of celebrity culture, the agony aunt's role changed drastically.
"Whereas before she was indispensable, now she's more for entertainment and has been relegated to the sidelines by celebrity agony aunts like Peaches Geldof for London Evening Standard's ES magazine and Jordan for OK!" says Carey.
If the advice in the mid-19th century was prescriptive, and from the 1950s onwards more directional, the advice these days is more empathetic (ie I feel your pain).
Take, for instance, Peaches Geldof's response to a correspondent who wrote: "All I want to do is eat chocolate - all day, every day. It's affecting my confidence, my work, my social life and, worst of all, my appearance. I'm desperate to control my cravings but it's so hard." Peaches replied: "I recently had the same problem with brie."
Of course, more credible agony aunts like Susan Quilliam of That's Life and Virginia Ironside, now of The Independent, try to maintain the reputation and credence of the profession.
Carey observes: "Agony aunts today are more for entertainment. But it's interesting to see that the human spirit has essentially remained the same and people then and now have the same problems and priorities like finding love."
So while today there is no impropriety in a man starting a conversation with a woman on an omnibus, women are, 150 years on, still concerned with matters of love, etiquette, career and health and beauty - and how to lose that Christmas tummy.