A different world: advice from a 1960s agony aunt

Vintage Summer: Mary Marryat’s column in Woman’s Weekly shows just how much attitudes to sex, death and abuse have shifted

Wed, Jul 23, 2014, 01:00

“If you need a helping hand and have no one to turn to, write to Mary Marryat. Her understanding and sympathetic advice have comforted many readers over the years.” Thus ran the friendly opening lines of the agony-aunt column in Woman’s Weekly for many years through the 1960s and 1970s. The invitation changed over time to “If you need the advice of a sympathetic friend, write to Mary Marryat” encouraging the illusion that the woman in need of help was not a stranger.

Who Mary Marryat was remains a mystery, even though there is a byline picture accompanying her columns of a smiling white-haired woman. A Google search didn’t reveal much more about her.

Agony aunts have long been anchor columnists in women’s magazines, and some of them – including Ann Landers, Marjorie Proops and Virginia Ironside – have become quite famous.

 

Dearth of information

In the 1960s, there was no Google, email or “talk to Joe”. If you wanted help, you wrote a letter to a stranger at a magazine, and you would have to wait the “several weeks” Marryat warned readers it would take for a reply to appear.

You have to wonder about the fortitude of the poor parents who wrote this heartbreaking letter in October 1965: “Our little son died recently. We had a lot of letters of sympathy and I would be very grateful to you if you would give me an idea of how to reply to them.”

Did those bereaved parents really spend weeks fretting sadly over the etiquette of writing such painful missives?

A few spare lines can reveal entire lives. Take this, from November 1965. A “Miss R” writes: “My sister is disabled, and, although we do our best to give her companionship, she is often rather lonely. I wonder if you could put me in touch with some organisation through which she could be helped?” The advice offered comprises an address for the then Central Council for the Disabled in London. From the distance of almost five decades, I find myself worrying about “Miss R” and her lonely sister with a disability. What happened to them?

 

A modern view

“This shows how little community knowledge and support there was in the 1960s,” says Trish Murphy, a psychotherapist who is currently writing the advice column Tell Me About It in this newspaper. “People nowadays ask for advice relating to themselves, but in those days, people wrote looking for general information. There were so few places to go for this kind of knowledge.”

Presumably, like all correspondence sent to agony aunts, only a selection ever made it into print. What’s curious about Marryat’s column is that sometimes she only printed cryptic answers to questions, not the questions themselves. These invariably seemed to refer to bodily matters and sex.

Sex education seems not to have been a priority in society 40 years ago. For instance, in February 1972, “Grace-Anne” is reassured that, “No, a girl cannot become pregnant through any kind of kissing.”

It’s striking how young the girls seeking advice about marriage are. Take this letter from October 1965: “I am 17 and very unhappy at home, but my parents will not agree to let me find lodgings. My boyfriend and I have been engaged for three months and we want to get married soon.” Marryat’s advice is to see “a Moral Welfare Officer”.

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