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Saturday, February 12, 2011

Agony Aunts

Susan Roebuck
Have you ever wondered where writers might get some of their inspiration from? Agony Aunts.

In the UK Agony Aunts have been popular for years. Agony Aunts are the editors of columns which give advice to those who have problems, a kind of Dear Abby if you will.  I’ve always been fascinated by them, even as a child I’d seek out the agony column to read first. And many Agony Aunts have become famous and household names.

Times change, though, and so do these columns. Originally they were prim and proper and the word s*x was rarely mention, but in the 1970s words such as v*g**a and orgasm began to be mentioned which made a refreshing change from the unfaithful husbands, awful parents and boyfriends whose breath smelled – even though these subjects still pop up today. Nowadays there’s even a parody in a famous UK Sunday newspaper whose advice has me in stitches: “your parents are having loud sex because you’re over 21 and they want you to leave home” (Mrs. Mills).

But whoever thought up the idea of writing their most private worries to a national journal for the whole country to see in the first place?

I inherited a beautifully bound compendium of a magazine for girls – The Girls Own Magazine which is described as a British story paper for girls and young women. It ran regularly from about 1880 to the 1950s, but the annual I have are all the copies printed weekly throughout 1894.  Detailed engravings sit side by side with such music scores as “The Blue-eyed Maiden’s Song” - any takers, it’ll sound lovely on the piano? Soap operas aren’t new either. The series of 1894 “The Master of Riverswood” begins with the line, “Fulk, I do wish you would listen”. Riveting.

The “how to” column was alive and kicking at that time too and I can learn how to “Govern your Temper”, “Beware of Pride”, and “Moral Courage” and even follow the steps to the Fan Dance (to tantalize my husband, no doubt).

Oh. And there’s an agony column – except it’s called “Answers to Correspondence”. The original letters weren’t published but the editor’s replies were. Jennie, for example, was told “to be patient about her much-abused hair” and Tootsie advised to “go by all means to see your betrothed husband, but take your sister with you.” Vesta’s question was answered like this: “When introduced in the ordinary way, bow and look gracious” and J.P.K.’s query about a translation from Italian was informed, “in English it means do not spit in church”. Many were scolded for their “disgraceful” handwriting.  I do wonder who the person was replying to all these letters – and there must have been a bundle because every week there’s a whole page in tight font of answers. I imagine a large bosomed matron with pursed up lips.

All very humorous and interesting, but there remains an underlying common factor with us today. An anonymous letter to a complete stranger still holds appeal for those with romantic, sexual and health problems.  Maybe it’s because they’re every day problems that are more in keeping with reality than with myths of glamour. What do you think?

 Susan Roebuck is the author of "Perfect Score" which can be bought here 
where you can also see the blurb and an excerpt of Chapter 1.
Check out my blog too: here

 ** If you would like to win a copy of Perfect Score, email me on


Maria Zannini said...

Sue, I have never heard of Agony Aunts. That's brilliant!

I love learning something new.

Rachel Lynne said...

I am totally intrigued by this old publication. Definitely doing a Google Search. I wish we had Agony Aunts in our paper, that "because you are 21 and they want you to leave ..." OMG, ROFL. I need a paper like that to brighten my mornings!

Kasey said...

I’ve never written to a Dear Abbey-like column but I can see the appeal. It’s not so much about asking for help, though I’m sure real folks have genuine concerns, but it’s also about sharing your secrets to everyone out there—laying down the burden so the speak. It can be therapeutic. Perhaps it’s the first step in the person’s willingness to open up and be honest with themselves when it comes to their problems. Not saying I’d do it in the future, as I usually just go to my friends for help, but talking to a complete stranger that has no way of contacting me personally does sound appealing—to a degree though. You don’t want to look to a stranger every time you have a problem. That would be a little weird.