As the final series of Downton Abbey draws to a close, I’ve found myself following one of the minor storylines with great interest. The office of Lady Edith’s magazine – inherited from her deceased love interest, Michael Gregson – has increasingly provided a space this season for the Crawley’s middle daughter to develop more substantially as a leading character. The appointment of a female editor and the addition of an agony aunt to the staff have reminded me of questions I am commonly asked about my own research into women’s magazines. The conversation about the identity of the agony aunt, in particular, has been very familiar to me.
Women at the Helm
With the ‘passage of time’ being the (sometimes over-laboured) theme interwoven through this season’s episodes, it is hardly surprising that Edith’s office has become a key location in which the shift into a ‘new world’ can be identified. When her tumultuous working relationship with Mr Skinner, the magazine’s chief editor, comes to an abrupt end in episode three, viewers are subsequently privy to Edith’s search for his replacement, which comes in the form of Laura Edmunds. We’re reminded again of the socio-cultural shift that is occurring when Edmunds’ reflection that 1892 – her year of birth – is ‘another time, another age’, prompts Edith to suggest a piece on ‘Victorian babies grown into modern women’ (episode 5).
While this season of Downton is set in the 1920s, I am regularly asked about the gender of those who produced and wrote for the 1960s magazines that feature in the Modern Wife exhibition. While Woman’s Way began life with a male editor, it wasn’t long before a woman was at the helm, while women also penned the majority of the content. The same was true of Woman’s Choice and Woman’s View. Monica Sheridan, Maura Laverty, Angela Macnamara, Eithne Brady and Philomena Groake would have been household names. Visitors who came on my guided tours of the exhibition when it was at the National Print Museum were often surprised to learn this, having assumed that men would have held at least the key positions.
In episode seven of Downton, Miss Cassandra Jones offers her services as an advice columnist to the magazine. It is suggested by Edmunds,
We’ll invent some problems. She’ll write the answers, and we’ll see how the public likes it.
In the following episode, Miss Jones is revealed to be Spratt, the Dowager Countess’ male butler. The plotline across these two episodes points to the quasi-fictitious nature of agony aunts in magazines and newspapers.
If we cannot be sure of the true identity of advice columnists or of the authenticity of the letters, are these elements of women’s magazines therefore useless to the researcher? Some of the replies clearly indicate that the published letter had first been condensed (usually due to constraints on space). People don’t typically write conveniently short letters that fit comfortably side-by-side with that week’s chosen bunch. Are we thus missing out on vital information, or even details that seem incidental at the time but later would help a researcher build a profile of the readership? And the problem is almost invariably well expressed – one might even say eloquently so, at times. Given the consistently well-structured style of writing, should we assume that the letters are also heavily edited? Therefore, are we really getting an insight into the everyday lives of the magazine’s readers and the problems that they face?
Despite all of these legitimate concerns, I’ve chosen to include advice from both Angela Macnamara (Woman’s Way) and Sheila Collins (Woman’s Choice) in the Modern Wife exhibition, and not just because their columns were regular features in their respective magazines. I believe that both the letters and the answers reveal much about societal norms and values. We know from Macnamara’s memoir Yours Sincerely that she received bags of correspondence on a weekly basis, so people were definitely writing to her. But if the published letters are fabricated or an amalgamation of dozens that raised similar issues, they are still useful, even if we can’t separate the real from the fictitious. That the magazine has chosen to create letters on a certain topic – perhaps on the issue of contraception or domestic violence – implies an importance attached to that topic. Perhaps the magazine is attempting to raise a controversial topic under the guise of an innocent reader’s query. And if the letter that actually appears in the magazine is actually an amalgam of multiple letters, that only points to the frequency with which certain issues were experienced. Like most primary sources used by historians, the advice columns are not without their problems. But to ignore them would be to cast aside useful documents of social history.