The Zeal and Softness Becoming to the Sex: the Origins of the Agony Aunt
By Kate Gould
In 1693, the first British women’s magazine, The Ladies’ Mercury, was published. It ran for only four issues before folding. Quite why its run was so brief is unclear, particularly given the fact that its male counterpart, The Athenian Mercury, ran for over seven years. Presumably the concerns of the fairer sex weren’t considered sufficient draw to the magazine-reading public. However, in those few weeks, it birthed the lampooned, beloved, feared, and all-knowing bastion of moral virtues: the agony aunt.
The Ladies’ Mercury promised to answer any questions relating to ‘Love etc’ with “the Zeal and Softness becoming to the Sex”. ‘All questions relating to love’ were to be sent to the Latine Coffee House in Ave-Mary-Lanes for ‘the Ladies Society’ to consider and reply to, using zeal or softness as they best thought fit.
It wasn’t until 1770, with the launch of the Lady’s Magazine that the agony aunt would again be seen in a ladies’ periodical. By way of qualifications for the role as dispenser of advice, ‘The Matron’ (also known as ‘Mrs Grey’) declared herself to be ‘duly qualified to make my monthly appearance in the Lady’s Magazine while I am able to hold pen, being in my grand climacteric and having been deeply engaged in numberless scenes variegated and opposite, serious and comic, cheerful and afflicting’. Quite what those ‘numberless scenes’ consisted of was never made clear, but apparently they provided her with ample qualifications for the job.
In 1798 another Society of Ladies created the Lady’s Monthly Museum or Polite Repository of Amusement and Instruction, ‘an assemblage of whatever can please the fancy, interest the mind and exalt the character of the British Fair’, with reading that even ‘the chastest matron may peruse’. Readers were invited to confide in the ‘Old Woman’ whose advice tended to be of a more bracing than comforting tone – preferring, it seems, the zeal to the softness of her sex. By way of introduction, she wrote ‘If a miss scarcely entered her teens asks my advice respecting a lover or inveighs against her mother, if a wife, forgetting the duty to her husband, attempts to engage me in her favour when she is disposed to bid defiance to his lawful commands, I surely cannot show myself more their friend than by conveying to oblivion the folly of the one, and the worthlessness of the other.’ When they weren’t conveyed to oblivion, troubled readers’ enquiries were consistently answered with the Old Woman’s cureall – ‘confine yourselves to your domestic duties, where alone you are calculated truly to shine’. Simply another sort of oblivion, really. Her readers were occasionally allowed to leave the home, but only in the name of national duty. As she once rallied her ‘Fair Countrywomen, Englishwomen, Daughters of Britain! Descendants of a free-born and virtuous race and hopes of your land!’ to act ‘against the prevailing spirit of innovation’.
Decades later, other agony aunts were no less disparaging of a lady’s life outside of the home and of conduct that wasn’t entirely befitting of a lady.
Seeking to find some sort of work-life balance, a wife and poetess sought the advice of The Weekly Magazine’s agony aunt in 1859 and was told that ‘Your duty now is to your husband. No wife should have a soul above buttons 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’. Unappetising as it sounds, I think it would dampen the flame of any love – the greatest loves in history would have parted ways over such an inedible dinner.
In 1894 Home Sweet Home’s agony aunt took great exception to the attempts of ‘Tudor Lass’ to find a husband. ‘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’. Quite what she would have made of online dating, I’ve no idea. Possibly she would have spontaneously combusted.
In the midst of such censorious advice, on the pages of ‘Cupid’s Post Bag’ in the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, both the enquiries and advice developed a saucier tone. The magazine launched in 1852 and the problems in Cupid’s post bag began ordinarily enough – gentlemen callers failing to return calls, prospective fiancés taking an age to propose, overbearing older sisters, weight loss, how to rid oneself of freckles. By the 1870s, after Cupid’s page was renamed ‘Conversazione’, the contents of his post bag took on an altogether less ladylike tone. The readers, it seemed, had decided to ditch the recalcitrant fiancés for spurs, tight-laced corsets, and the whipping of maidservants. The magazine was edited and, largely, written by a man – Samuel Beeton, with his wife, Isabella, contributing on the subjects of pets and cookery – so it’s quite possible that he was Cupid and, failing to empathise with the feminine fate, decided to add a little colour to his post bag with tales of what he hoped his readers might spend their time doing.
The more outlandish the problem and advice, the more it is assumed that the agony aunt is a spoof, creating scenarios and solutions for her page solely for comic effect. I had always assumed Mrs Mills of The Sunday Times to be a spoof until I sent her a problem (fairly unremarkable relationship stuff – no spurs) and she gave a most helpful reply. So, Cupid may have had to do nothing whatsoever to the content of his post bag. Possibly, readers’ concerns did morph from domesticated drudgery to flagellation – a change which would have delighted the maidservants no end, I’m sure.
A century or so later, the role of the agony aunt tends to be of a fairly serious nature. With the exception of the likes of Mrs Mills, she is more likely to offer comfort than reproof. Agony aunts such as Marge Proops, Clare Rayner, and Anna Raeburn used their position to campaign for women’s issues. Sally Brampton counsels almost exclusively on issues of mental health, eating disorders, and abusive relationships. Peaches Geldof gives out her own adolescent advice while Jordan focuses mainly on how to bed your man and keep him there. A quirky and interesting take on the role, Carole Jahme is an ‘evolutionary agony aunt’, using evolutionary psychology to explain quite how we evolved to such a befuddled state and what to do about it. Over 300 years on from the Ladies Society of the Latine Coffee House in Ave-Mary-Lanes, the problems for which we’re seeking the zeal and softness becoming to the sex have little changed. Love is an unending conundrum.
This fairly lengthy preamble leads me on to the fact that, as the reader of the work of a great many aspiring writers, I noticed there was one area of life on which no agony aunt was commenting. That is, the life of a writer. To remedy this, I set one up – Dear Editor. It started out as an advice column and forum for writerly concerns and has segued into other areas of life – partners who don’t seem to realise that one doesn’t achieve one’s creative best by standing at the sink doing the dishes, for example. Really, it’s for anything on your mind – I won’t convey you to oblivion and spurs are unlikely to shock.
I await with interest.
About the author:
Kate Gould has worked as an editor, book critic, columnist, slush pile reader, writing competition judge, hotel critic, magazine editor, English teacher, and research assistant. She is now Chief Editorial Consultant at The Fine Line and author of The Pocketbook of Prompts: 52 Ideas for a Story and The Perfect Word: The Fine Line Writing Course. Her book on flashers, Exposing Phallacy, is to be published by Zero Books.
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