VICTORIAN AGONY AUNTS
*Detail from an illustration to a humorous essay in The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine (1862).
It is in the form of a Letter to the Editor from a desperate country
girl worried that her fashionable, flirtatious and patronising cousin
down from town is completely overshadowing her in the eyes of her
fiancé. As she tries hard to be welcoming to the visitor the wariness
in her eyes expresses both her astonishment at the latest fashion in
millinery and her repressed fears that she is a 'common corse [sic]
person by the side of her'; fears which can only find an outlet in
writing to the editor. 'There's nobody here to say anything to..' So
rambling is the letter, however. that by the time she signs off her
troubles are happily resolved. The satire is directed as much at the
pretentious townee in her parasol, "pork pie" hat and veil for a tour
of the farm, as to the naive letter-writer who cannot spell.
The illustration is by Adelaide Claxton, a book illustrator and painter whose work appeared in a number of Victorian periodicals.
The Agony Aunts of modern periodicals have their immediate forbears in the "Answers to Correspondents" pages of Victorian women's magazines. Generally speaking, in the nineteenth century it was magazines addressed primarily to women that carried columns answering readers' queries, including issues which today we regard as "Agony Aunt " material, i.e. questions dealing with personal dilemmas and emotions. Most of such magazines featured on Victorian Page - the Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine, New Monthly Belle Assembleé, Girl's Own Paper, Ladies' Treasury and Woman at Home - carried some answers which would fall into this category. But, as the essay mentioned in the caption above suggests, readers' worries focused on a wider range of issues than affairs of the heart. Feelings of social inadequacy, being bullied by siblings or worries about one's figure or face, are all topics which recur in the columns. However, the only early one which, as far as I know, dealt exclusively with courtship and other deeply emotional issues was the relatively short-running Sam Beeton's "Cupid's Letter-Bag" in the Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine. More usually such questions were dealt with alongside issues of etiquette, queries about items in the magazine, requests for advice on fashion, health or beauty, or even answers to general knowledge questions. The Girls' Own Paper, aimed at young women in their twenties as well as girls, in contrast, divided its readers' letters and the answers into sections covering topics like education, housekeeping and music. Here most "Agony Aunt" questions appeared in "Miscellaneous".
A correspondent's identity was normally disguised by a pseudonym or hidden behind initials. The reply to "F.D., The Elms" in the Ladies' Treasury's "Answers" column under "Agony Aunts" below is unusual in including a house name, which might encourage an outbreak of tittering among the the friends of every Fanny Davies or Flora Davis living in a leafy suburb in a house with that popular Victorian name. However, the reply itself suggests an "Agony Aunt" problem typical of the period. It presents itself as a question of etiquette and interpreting the nuances of courtship whilst the answer, even more forcefully than Sam Beeton's final remark to "Leontine" in the rival Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine, adopts a brisk, moralising tone in addressing the enquirer's assumptions - or hopes - about the young man's intentions.
is troubled about her complexion. What a host of English girls are
anxious on this subject, if we may judge by the numbers of letters we
receive; and yet, on the Continent, the fair daughters of Albion are
considered to have lovely skins. The Dutch women only can compete in
this charm. We do not recommend lotions or powders of any description
for improving the complexion, as we think, eventually, they tend rather
to spoil than improve the skin. Plenty of exercise - horse exercise
particularly - will assist in a great measure to "produce the desired
effect," as Leontine says. This is a simple remedy, and one that would
not be likely to prove injurious... Your writing we do not think at
all good; there is not sufficient decision. When Leontine ceases to
think so much of her complexion, and devotes her time and thoughts to
more useful matters, we have no doubt but that her writing will assume
a different aspect, less frivolous, and denoting some character and
strength of mind.
Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine 1862
Later examples of answers to readers worried about personal appearance are published on the "Ladies' Page - Beauty Secrets".
The following is an extract from part of a multi-question answer:
THE ELMS - no matter how great the intimacy may be between the
families, such etiquette in these matters should always be kept up as
would be if the parties were strangers to each other. It is so much the
fashion now for friends mutually to present their photographs for the
purpose of placing in photographic albums, that a lady could take no
exclusiveness to herself, or she should not,
on being presented with a gentleman's likeness, unless the magic words
have been spoken, and parents' approval make it a betrothal; therefore,
by no means should the lady give hers in exchange - never give the
slightest opportunity to be laughed at, or to be spoken lightly of, or
the chance to have it imagined that her pure and maiden love, that
brightest jewel of a girl's inheritance, can be obtained without
effort, and for the asking. Men always desire most that which is
difficult to obtain.
Ladies' Treasury 1861
*"F.D." was almost certainly a middle-class "young lady" of the kind Mrs Warren, editress of the Ladies' Treasury, sought for her readership. By the later decades of the century, however, photographic portraits were within the reach of the working classes. This detail from an illustration in the Windsor Magazine shows a photographer at work on Hampstead Heath in the mid 1890s creating "A Bank Holiday Souvenir". The text makes clear that every reader will be well aware from numerous accounts that now the Heath is 'the very centre of the gaieties which have made " 'Appy, 'Appy "Ampstead " so notoriously the place of places at which to spend a glorious Bank Holiday if you be a dweller in London' , but that the authors' personal knowledge of these gaieties is - thankfullly - it is implied, second-hand.
Readers interested in the satirical comments on fashion in hats may be interested in the item on bonnets in the new page on the Crinoline. An introduction to Readers' Letters to Victorian women's magazines will be found on the Editor's Mailbag.
For important information on Copyright, Citations, Images and References please see my Home Page. There you will also find an explanation of the aims of Victorian Page, and a note about me.
Page Published February 2009 (Some material was first published in the Editor's Mailbag in 2007 and 2008) Last updated August 31st 2010
© Barbara Onslow 2007
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