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Dear Mrs. Elton

Inquiring Readers: Yes, you read the title correctly. Author Diana Birchall has resurrected her excellent advice column on behalf of Mrs. Elton. A number of years ago Laurel Ann Nattress, blogger of Austenprose and editor of Jane Austen Made Me Do It, co-posted on my other blog, Jane Austen Today. We both sent letters to Mrs. Elton/Diana, who replied with cheeky aplomb. (Read the archived columns here). The column entitled “Mrs. Elton Sez” once ran weekly. The renamed column will be featured monthly.

Agony Aunts, or advice columnists, were not unknown in the 18th and 19th centuries and have enjoyed a long tradition. One imagines that Mrs. Elton would have no difficulty dispensing her advice in print. And now, without further ado …

Dear Mrs. Elton,

I am writing to inform you that I have identified you as the Agony Aunt in The Highbury Monthly Gazette. The means by which I came to this conclusion I shall keep to myself. Suffice it to say that your audaciousness knows no bounds. To brazenly appoint oneself as the judge of others and the arbiter of taste and deportment in an insignificant village when all one has done is marry a mere parson is the height of vanity. As his wife it is your DUTY to be a MODEL of humility and Christian love. I command you to take lessons from Mrs. Collins, also a parson’s wife, whose modesty and sense of duty have set her up as a PARAGON of propriety.

I am most seriously displeased with your presumption and shall not end this missive with my good wishes.

Lady Catherine de Bourgh

Rosings

My dear Lady Catherine,

Picture to yourself my extreme surprise at receiving your late missive!  I do not at all know how to account for that honour, but although the Eltons have not a family name distinguished among the nobility, you may be better acquainted with the name of Suckling.  Yes, my sister, Mrs. Suckling, Miss Selina Hawkins as was, has married into one of the very greatest families in the land; – that is, her husband’s father settled at Maple Grove at no very distant time in the past, but for income, Mr. Suckling has one of the largest in all the country round Birmingham, and drives a barouche-landau.  So I think you must know whom you are addressing, when you give me the favour of a letter, and a letter actually written in your ladyship’s own hand.

The subject of your letter, however, takes me by surprise quite as much as the letter itself.  Agony aunt!  What a very modern term for a very odious thing, to be sure.  I should like to know why you take me for such a creature?  No lady would write for a newspaper, far less a little country organ like the Gazette, and I trust you realize by this time, that it is a lady with whom you have to do.  The Hawkins family, you know – well, there, I need not display my antecedents. That would be vulgar.  Display of all kind is what I have a horror of.  You may take up the Peerage yourself; and see that the Hawkins family are a very ancient Kent line, whose name originated in the word HAVOC.  There has always been a famous solicitor in every generation, but do not run away with the idea that we are tradesmen, for that, my Lady Catherine, I assure you we are not.  One of my cousins was raised to a Barony for his excellence in jurisprudence, and my most illustrious ancestor of all was a Pirate.  Admiral Sir John Hawkins.  He invented the slave trade almost singlehandedly, and was of that enterprising, pushing nature shared by all my – But stay – I did not mean to mention that.  You will kindly overlook it.

And who is this Mrs. Collins of whom you speak?  If I mistake not, she is a country girl whose father really was in trade, until his having a term as mayor of his little village of Meryton, gave him his knighthood – a very recent creation, too.  This is not the sort of person to hold up as example, and I beg to know what Your Ladyship means by it.  My husband Mr. Elton is a far superior sort of clergyman than Mr. Collins, who is, as all the world knows, a half-educated, toadying sort of fellow, and certainly not a Vicar.

Let us return, however, to the subject of Agony Aunt.  I take this term to mean a sort of Dispenser of Advice.  Well, I must inform you, I have never Dispensed Advice; I should be ashamed to do so unasked (although any advice I might give, would be better than any body’s).  From your mentioning the profession, however, I can divine your real intention.  You protest, but I see through you.  I see through to your real meaning, Lady Catherine!  One with my Understanding, and my Resources, will always see through other ladies, no matter how high born; and I now give you to understand that I know that you would love nothing more than to be an Agony Aunt yourself!  You write to me, therefore, seeking advice as to how to begin.  You have, as I can very easily discern, a vast ability to give advice of the best sort, as I do myself, which is why I can recognize this very quality in others.  You would like to make a more formal, more public use of your undoubted talents, and I believe you have come to exactly the right quarter, for who can better tell you how to proceed, than I?  Did I not find a situation as governess, one of the first situations in the country, for my favorite, Jane Fairfax?  As it happened, she did not take it up, for her marriage prevented her; but had she gone to Mrs. Smallridge, only think how happy she would have been!  So make no mistake, I can and will find a situation for you, too.

Would you care to write – anonymously, of course, merely under the by-line of “A Lady,” for the Highbury Monthly Gazette?  I await your reply by return of post.

Yours respectfully,

Augusta Elton

The Vicarage, Highbury

Diana and her cat, Pindar

About Diana Birchall

Diana Birchall grew up in New York City, and was educated at Hunter College Elementary School, the High School of Music and Art, and C.C.N.Y, where she studied history and English literature. She has worked in the film industry for many years and is the “book person” story analyst at Warner Bros. Studios, reading novels to see if they would make movies. A lifelong student of Jane Austen, whom she calls her writing teacher, Diana is the author of Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma, a charming and best-selling sequel to Jane Aust­en’s Pride and Prejudice. Originally published by Egerton House Press in England, it is now available in a new reprint edition from Sourcebooks. Diana’s comedy pastiche In Defense of Mrs. Elton,based on characters from Jane Austen’s Emma, was published by the Jane Austen Society in the U.S., the U.K. and Australia. It forms part of the “compleat” Mrs. Elton Trilogy, which is collected in the volume Mrs. Elton in America, published by Sourcebooks. Read more about Diana in this link.

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Maternal AdviceAs many of you are aware, my Jane Austen Today blogging partner Laurel Ann and I have been running a Mrs. Elton Sez advice column. The estimable Diana Birchall, author of Mrs. Elton in America, writes as our guest columnist. While our column is written tongue in cheek (though I must admit, Diana’s advice as Mrs. Elton makes sense in a loopy sort of way), the tradition of including advice columns in women’s publications has enjoyed a long and proud history. In A Magazine of Her Own? Domesticity and Desire in the Woman’s Magazine, 1800-1914, author Maragaret Beetham traces the early advice column.

The Lady’s Museum’s immediate model, once again, was the Lady’s Magazine. here ‘The matron’ – also called “Mrs. Grey’ – claimed 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. (LMV 1774:33)

The Old Woman, too offered to advise readers from the vantage point of her age and experience. Unlike the later agony aunt, however, her tone was bracing rather than sympathetic. (The Early Ladies’ Journals, p 22-23)

The Lady’s Monthly Museum was one of the leading periodicals for women from 1798-1828. Female columnists, later known as agony aunts, answered anonymous letters that posed questions about personal problems and gave advice according to the latest etiquette books or society’s strictures. Indeed, they offered advice of the most discreet sort:

… whilst a Letter of Advice to a Lady on the point of marriage in November 1770 counsels that: ”Prudence and virtue will certainly secure esteem but unfortunately, esteem alone will not make a happy marriage, passion must also be kept alive …” – the emphasis post 1825 is on modesty and virtue – perhaps even on companionship and governing household – but certainly not passion. – Women Advising Women

Agony columns, which were located on the second page inside a newspaper, contained advertisements for missing relatives and friends. An opinion about such advertisements is described in this colorful passage from The Handy-book of Literary Curiosities:

A large number of the advertisements relate to prodigal sons and truant husbands. Now, you and I have never run away and hid from our families; probably no one in our set of acquaintances ever has. Yet the fact remains that there is a certain percentage of the human race to whom the temptation to run away is irresistible. By a more or less happy dispensation they seem to be blessed with relatives of exceptional clemency, who, instead of leaving them alone like Bopeep’s sheep ,implore them through the Times and other papers to come home to a steaming banquet of veal. They frequently wind up by promising the fugitive that everything will be arranged to his satisfaction, which surely ought to prove a tempting bait, for to have everything arranged to one’s satisfaction is a condition rarely realized. Handy-book of Literary Curiosities By William Shepard Walsh, 1909

The General Magazine, 1743

The General Magazine, 1743

While the topics discussed in advice columns are largely thought to be about women’s issues, they have been popular in men’s periodicals as well (Think of the advice sections in Esquire or Playboy). The Athenian Mercury, a publication printed towards the end of the 17th century and that targeted “ordinary” people from the middle and lower classes, featured the first agony column in history. In many ways, early modern people’s problems do not seem significantly different from ours. Take the behavior of a knot of apprentices. Replace ‘a knot of apprentices’ with ‘a group of soldiers’, ‘a team of lacrosse players’, or ‘high school friends’, and you might still get a similar answer today:

Complaints in the Athenian Mercury about a ‘Knot of Apprentices’ misbehaving with a ‘Servant Maid, of no good Reputation’ were frequent. The Athenian Society warned apprentices that such behavior risked ‘scandal and danger‘ to their reputations.  The termination of an indenture could be ruinous to a young man’s prospects, and such conduct threatened his ‘Fame, Estate, Body, and ’tis to be fear’d Soul and all’. (March, 1692)

This fascinating exchange was published in the Athenian Mercury in Nov, 1695:

Quest: A young Man being an apprentice, and having served about half his time, hath a very fair opportunity to marry much to his advantage; would you advise such an one to take opportunity by the Fore top, or to let her go and say he cannot marry because he is an Apprentice? Gentlemen, Pray favour me with a speedy Answer.

Answ: Fair and Gently, Lad; marriage is no foot ball play . . . few men till some years above twenty know either how to govern themselves, choose a wife, or set a true value upon Money. Not one marriage in five hundred, made before twenty five, or thereabouts, proves happy ….

It seems, in that age of apprenticeship and indenture, that the average age for men to marry was 27. For a woman it was 25 or 26, impossibly so, I thought, until I remembered that an indentured servant signed up for three to seven years. Perhaps only the children of the rich could afford to marry early.

Public displays of affection were not encouraged, as noted by this descriptive answer:

“Tis Silly enough in both [men and women]. . . ’tis indecent, to be alwayes slabbering, like a couple of Horses nabbing one another. . . [but it] seems worst in a Man because there ’tis most unnatural, and looks like a Woman with a Beard, so very monstrous that all the Street points at him. . . . (November, 1691)

Over three hundred years later, my dear departed (and very conservative) mother-in-law would have heartily agreed with that comment. Advice columns are still prolifically printed and widely read. While Dear Abby and Ann Landers supplied daily wisdom for our parents, modern readers can click on Dear Mrs. Web, which sits online.

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Image: Women and Education in 18th Century Virginia, Colonial Williamsburg

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