I’ve just finished reading a lovely book called Dear Sweet Pea by Julie Murphy. It’s for middle-grade readers (8-12-year-olds), who are ready for novel length books, but not quite ready for young adult fiction, which often has quite strong themes around sexuality, loss, and the difficulties associated with transitioning from childhood to adulthood.
Dear Sweet Pea has all those themes, but they are softened. Body consciousness is dealt with gently, and relationships are all about friendship, rather than romance. It’s an enjoyable read with the main character inadvertently falling into the role of Agony Aunt when she gets involved with an eccentric neighbour who writes an advice column for the local newspaper.
It reminded me very much of a book for grown-ups called Dear Mrs Bird by A J Pearce, which has a similar storyline. Set in war-time England, Emmy (an aspiring war correspondent) takes a low-paid job at a rundown newspaper and begins to secretly answer the letters to Mrs Bird, the resident (and rather fearsome) advice columnist.
Advice columns have always been popular in newspapers and magazines. In the nineteenth century they offered advice on domestic concerns, as well as personal issues like how wives could make themselves indispensable!! They were a good way for women to ask questions about love and about sexual matters in a time when these things were not discussed openly, and doctors were mostly male.
Women have always wanted to know what’s normal and often don’t have anyone they can ask. Some topics are just plain embarrassing and hard to discuss with even your closest friends.
A good place to find the answers to embarrassing questions used to be Dolly Doctor, a column in Dolly magazine, published in Australia from 1970 to 2016. If you want to take a trip down memory lane, back issues of Dolly have been digitised by the National Library of Australia and can be found here.
Another well-known Australian agony aunt was Kate Samperi who wrote a column in the Women’s Day magazine from 1970 to 1993. She gave advice about life, love and happiness in her ‘Dear Kate’ column.
America’s most famous agony aunt was probably Elizabeth Meriwether Gilmer, also known as Dorothy Dix. She was born in 1861 and was the highest paid and most widely read female journalist in the world at the time of her death in 1951. Her advice on marriage was syndicated in newspapers around the world and her name lives on to this day in Australian politics, where a ‘Dorothy Dixer’ refers to the practice of asking a government Minister a planned question during Parliamentary Question Time. This provides an opportunity for a Member of Parliament to either show off or waste time on a matter of little importance.
Modern versions of Dorothy Dix include Dear Sugar, a column originally published anonymously by Cheryl Strayed (author of Wild) and Ask Polly, a column in The Cut magazine, where writer Heather Havrilesky gives no-nonsense advice about a range of issues including how to find new friends, when to break up with your boyfriend and whether you have to thank your aunt when she gives you terrible gifts. Be warned that there is often quite a lot of sweary language (prolific use of the *f* word) in both these columns, but I like their tough love approaches.
I guess there will always be a place for agony aunts in various guises, because despite all the changes in the last 100 years, people are still deeply insecure and in need of reassurance.
I hope you have someone you can talk to, but if not, you can always write to me and I’ll do my best to answer.