Saturday 20 July 2019

A brief history of the agony aunt

Loneliness, sex and misery: Darragh McManus on the bitter-sweet world of the advice columnist

Agony aunt Frankie Byrne
Agony aunt Frankie Byrne

You'd think there wouldn't be too much explaining or advice required when it comes to something as natural and common as sex -- it is, I understand, how most of us came into being in the first place.

But you'd be wrong, judging by the long, interesting and often downright strange history of the agony aunt.

It's not known when exactly people started writing to experts - whether actual or self-styled - seeking guidance on sexual or romance problems. Perhaps Cleopatra would have a slave chisel out a hieroglyphic message for the local oracle, asking when would love-rat Julius quit it with the roving eye and commit to their relationship?

Or perhaps not. Anyway, the earliest officially accepted advice column was published in The Athenian Mercury, founded in London in 1690 by John Dunton. He was having an extra-marital affair and needed to source help anonymously so, showing a spirit of entrepreneurship equal to his libido, set up his own publication.

The Mercury incorporated high-falutin' queries such as "How can a man know when he dreams or when he is really awake?" alongside questions of the heart and boudoir, including "reasonable questions sent to us by the fair sex". Which was decent of them.

There was later a spin-off for the gals, The Ladies Mercury, which responded to "all the most nice and curious questions concerning love, marriage, behaviour, dress and humour of the female sex, whether virgins, wives, or widows".

After that, legions of similar columns followed down the years (and centuries). The great, good, famous, brilliant, anonymous and woefully under-qualified all gave their two cents on love, sex, romance, the whole shebang.

In 1778, for instance, Benjamin Franklin wrote: "Keep your eyes open before marriage, half-shut afterwards." Eight decades later Punch magazine topped that waggish declaration with this zinger: "Advice to persons about to marry: 'Don't.'"

The 19th century in particular was a -- pardon the pun -- fertile time for agony aunts, agony uncles, and dispensers of wisdom of all genders and none. William Alcott wrote in 1836: "No cold calculations of profit or loss ... should ever, for one moment, even in thought, be substituted for love."

A sweet-natured romantic clearly, though he was also well able to dish out the moral instruction. Self-abuse, he reckoned, would wreck the man's health and condemn his descendants "to suffer by inheriting feeble constitutions, or actual disease". And as for getting jiggy with a willing partner, he solemnly intoned: "One indulgence to each lunar month is all that the best health of the parties can possibly require."

In 1896 Robert Horton opined poetically: "A passionate love cannot by the very nature of our emotional faculties be retained at full tension always, and what is to happen, when for the moment the harp must be unstrung?"

And speaking of unstrung harps, Alice Stockham contended in 1886 that marital sex was like prostitution, and if done during pregnancy could morally damage the foetus, so was therefore best avoided.

Thrusting energetically into the 20th century, and sex advice got more explicit. The iconic Marie Stopes sold 700,000 copies of how-to manual Married Love in 1919, despite being banned in the US. And the equally free 'n' easy Dr HW Long wrote of the first night of wedlock: "As perfectly as two drops of water flow together and become one, the bodies and souls of the parties to the act will mingle in a unity the most perfect and blissful that can ever be experienced by human beings in this world."

Long was also fond of giving detailed instructions on position, tempo, movement and so on; as was Oliver Butterfield who, in 1937, went so far as to suggest the optimum angle for mutual satisfaction. (It's 45 degrees, by the way.)

Nowadays, of course, you can't turn around in the newsagents without someone offering you advice from the pages of a magazine or paper. There are plastic celebs getting thoughtful in the plastic celeb mags, and glamour models being helpful in lads' mags. Publications such as Cosmopolitan feature material so incredibly explicit it'd make your eyes pop, if not other bodily parts.

Then there were American institutions such as Ann Landers and Dr Ruth, the Germanic midget with the helmet of hair and inexhaustible willingness to discuss "zee zegg-shoo-all inda-koh-azz, and gay agony aunts -- or maybe uncles -- and fictional advice columnists.

Tabloid legends such as Dear Deidre, with her saucy photo stories and peculiar spelling of her own name. Spoof advice columns in Viz magazine and spoof agony aunt Mrs Mills in The Sunday Times ... and Ann Widdecombe's short-lived Guardian column.

Their name is Agony Aunt, and their number is legion.

We even -- it's true -- have a proud history of Irish sex advice. Everyone believes there was no naughtiness in this country before Gay Byrne and the invention of the mini-skirt, but that's not true.

As far back as the 1960s, Angela Macnamara was writing an advice column in the Sunday Press. While it was awfully conservative, at least she was discussing such things in a relatively open manner, and came across as sincere and well-intentioned.

The venerable weekly Woman's Way also offered help in affairs of the heart. One woman remembers her mother writing "just before she got married in September 1968, asking how often should she have 'sexual intercourse' with the husband-to-be.

The kind people in Woman's Way replied that it was the man's prerogative to initiate sex and she should have intercourse as often as her husband wants it -- regardless of whether she wants to! She passed away more than 20 years ago but I'm sure she'd have a giggle at it now!"

Once-hip music rag Hot Press ran a Sex Aid column in the late 1980s. A former employee now recalls: "Staffers hated it because it was gratuitous porn disguised as an agony column. They held it up to ridicule. The logo, reluctantly designed by Arthur Mathews, featured a Roaring Twenties couple and the line 'Everything you ever wanted to know about sex and weren't afraid to ask'."

Our mole squeamishly remembers such unintentionally hilarious questions as "Is my vagina big enough?", "I have only one testicle -- might it stop me having children?" and "Is it possible to get sex toys in Ireland?"

But the real queens of Irish advice were Dear Frankie and Dear Linda. The former was Frankie Byrne, a legendary radio star for many years who carried on a secret love affair with the equally legendary Frank Hall, also for many years. She even inspired a spoof radio show in the early 1990s, Monica Moody, written by Fiona Looney and starring Pauline McLynn.

'Dear Linda', a Sunday World column, was penned by Valerie McGrath for 25 years from inception in 1980. She says: "Joe Kennedy, Sunday World editor, asked me if I'd do the column. I said I would only if real people wrote in -- I wouldn't make up letters. But from the start they came in their hundreds. The Sunday World was probably the perfect vehicle for it.

"They weren't very racy initially, they were actually very sad: a lot of lonely men in the west of Ireland. As time went on they got stronger, though we were still restricted in what we could print; it wasn't as free as today. On one occasion I got a call from the editor saying not to be too racy or the paper could be withdrawn from the newsstands!

"But we never had any letters of complaint. I think people were just relieved to be able to put down what was on their mind."

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