What better barometer of the nation’s psyche could there be than the questions in an agony aunt’s postbag – and the answers they receive? ‘My transgender brother is furious over my choice of baby name’, ‘My Remainer husband is refusing to get a new passport’ and ‘My leftie wife is condescending and annoying’ are just a few of the timely examples from one recent broadsheet column.
These days, many responses to such dilemmas are variations on ‘Live your truth’ (in other words, do and say whatever makes you happy) – which may go some way towards explaining why agony aunts are no longer the essential reading they once were.
Although advice columns have been around for centuries – the first ones appeared in 1691 in the periodical Athenian Mercury and were supposedly run past a panel of moral ‘experts’ – the sympathetic agony aunt is a very modern invention. In the golden age of the problem page, which really started in the Victorian era when education laws meant more people could read, agony aunts’ main job was to uphold the nation’s standards, not soothe the feelings of correspondents.
In 1859, a new bride who wrote to the Weekly Magazine about a row with her husband which erupted because she was too busy writing poetry to have his dinner on the table is told to forget her muse: ‘your first duty is now to your husband’ and ‘a man’s heart lives very near his stomach’. If correspondents put a foot wrong, their letters might be answered with hectoring rants or dismissed with withering put-downs. You risked being branded naive, beyond help or, at worst, immoral.
To a girl in 1895 who asked in Girl’s Own Paper if it was acceptable to go boating with a young man she’d like to know better: ‘It surprises us to find that a girl sufficiently educated to write and spell well should be so deplorably ignorant of the common rules of society to think that she may go out alone with a young man in his canoe.