Aunt Kate’s Postbag, 1916

I always love a problem page, and it doesn’t matter if it’s from the latest issue of a magazine or a publication 100 years ago. I’m not the only one – my post on a Victorian problem page still gets views every week.

So here’s another one, this time from 99 years ago. In the same tradition of the Victorian problem page, it consists of answers only. The actual questions are discreetly never mentioned – sometimes on such pages they’re obvious, but they can also be annoyingly impossible to figure out. The agony aunt here is “Aunt Kate” and she says (if she’s a real person) “if you are ever worried over anything or in difficulty, write to me, and I shall do my best to advise you.”

The People's Journal, 4th November 1916

The People’s Journal, 4th November 1916

Dot had a couple of questions. The first was apparently to ask whether she might be able to get a job as a lady’s companion. Aunt Kate says no. Dot is too young for such a role, which involves being educated, capable and accomplished and an all-round housekeeper to boot. And, in any case, paid companions were becoming few and far between these days. Dot would do better to set her sights at secretarial or nursing work instead.

Dot’s second question involves her legs – the thinness of them, in particular. Aunt Kate dismisses this worry – “There is really no remedy for thin legs. As a matter of fact, most girls long to have thin legs. Why not wear boots with long uppers? These are the latest fashion, and would serve to make the legs a better shape.”

Iris – ah, I feel for Iris. She’s written in to ask how to manage her shyness. As I was a shy child myself, I recognise Aunt Kate’s advice as the same kind of thing I heard many times, from people who have no idea what it is to be shy. “Just get over it,” it boils down to. I had one teacher at school who was an outgoing, bouncing puppy of a man, and who had never experienced a moment’s shyness in his life, I’m sure. At the start of the year, he promised that anyone who started off shy in his class wouldn’t end up so. What he meant by this was that he would be loud at all times, put people on the spot with questions, and there would be a lot of interaction and role play exercises. Maybe this would help some people to miraculously eradicate any feelings of reserve, but I think that for many genuinely shy teenagers, this is actually close to your worst nightmare instead. I think that age is the best cure in the end, Clockwork-Orange-style.

Aunt Kate’s advice on shyness isn’t bad, it’s just easier said than done. I hope it helped Iris, anyway. “Dear child, you must try to fight down this shyness of which you complain. When in other people’s presence try not to be self-conscious – to imagine that all eyes are on you. Try to think about the other people in the room, and how you can make things more agreeable for them. If you are to cure yourself of shyness, go out amongst other people as much as possible, and very soon you will learn how to conduct yourself properly. Although you are only 16 you are not a bit too young to rid yourself of this complaint – the sooner the better!”

I wonder what “M.W” was asking for – it seems to refer to whether a certain type of institution existed in relation to looking after her child. Aunt Kate says that there is no such institution anyway, but that she could leave her child at a day nursery, enabling her to go to work. I get the impression there’s a sad and hard story lurking behind that one.

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