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


“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”.

While many of the problems are innocuous – Will my bust ever get bigger? Why don’t my parents let me go to dances? Why can’t I wear make up yet? – some are dark and troubling.


A worried teenager

I read with horror a “worried teenager’s” description of her extreme vulnerability in a letter published in December 1965.

It reads: “I often spend holidays with friends of my family, but every time the husband is alone with me he makes passes at me and has recently become more intent on this. I have tried every possible way of stopping him, and at last told him I would tell my father, but he only laughed. Recently things have been worse, and, as my mother is dead, there is nobody I can turn to.”

What advice would Murphy offer to someone in 2014 who sent her this letter? “The first step is to tell a responsible adult; tell honestly and exactly what is going on. Secrecy is what keeps this going, because this man will not do what he is doing in public.”

And the advice Marryat offers in 1965? “I don’t think you need tell your father what has happened if it can be avoided, but simply say that you would rather do something else for your next holiday. Only if he will not otherwise agree to this change of plan need you tell him why you do not want to be in this man’s company, being very careful not to exaggerate the situation in any way, and I should advise you to try and keep the situation from the wife and not make any fuss for her sake.”

The young girl is being encouraged to say nothing, not even to her own father. And if she must confide, she is being warned not to “exaggerate”. She is also being encouraged to think of protecting her abuser’s wife above her own safety.

Murphy is appalled by this response. “Oh my God,” she says, before analysing the response in the societal context of almost 50 years ago. “I suppose the agony aunt understands that if something is said, the focus will go on the girl as opposed to the man. But essentially, this is absolute support for sex abuse and silence, and sending the message that it’s the child who should carry the responsibility for someone else’s behaviour. It’s deeply shocking.”

There are undoubtedly many “troubled teenagers” still out there in 2014, along with people seeking information for support for family members with disabilities and bereaved parents struggling to cope after the death of a child. But at least they don’t now have to wait weeks or months for answers to urgent questions, unlike their counterparts in 1965.

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