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I bought my copy of "What Every Woman Ought To Know" from The Works for £1.99. My attention was caught by the colour tinted front cover picture of a winking Edwardian lady. I don't know what the photo was originally used for, but it sets the tone for a humourous book, one that is unintentionally so most of the time!
Although the author is listed on the front of the book as Constance Mortimer, the copyright information credits the author as being a Gavin Mortimer. The rear cover explains that Constance is Gavin "in real life" and definitely a man. I am not sure what the point of the pretence is, although apparently many advice columns were actually written by men in the past, so perhaps it is intended as a joke about that.
The book is a small hardback, about the size of a standard novel. Although the cover is colourful, there are not any pictures inside. It is a compilation of letters written to womans magazines and newspaper "agony aunt" columns in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, along with their published replies. Some of letters and answers come from American publications, while the majority are from British ones. The letters cover all sorts of subjects - romantic problems, household management subjects, fashion, beauty, and self improvement to name a few. Some the solutions are brief such as the simple "yes" when asked if it was a womans place to speak first when meeting someone she knew in the street. Others get lengthier replies. Although the book is classed as humour, and many of the problems seem funny, at least now that enough time has passed, some are quite the opposite. I think letters from woman asking how to feel less lonely and how to effectively make their lives worth living are moving however old the letters are. The difficulties of choosing a husband come with the terrifying underlying fear of being left an "old maid", and dependent on relatives for everything. Thankfully there are plenty of lighter problems too. Some wouldn't seem out of place in a modern womans magazine such as how to tell if you are in love for the first time, or how to deal with spots. In others the problems make the past seem more distant, such as the thorny issue of whether you could greet someone you had not been formally introduced to, or whether if was morally safe for a 17 year old girl to read novels.
The authors of the advice are annoymous, tending to go by names such as "Amor" . It is a shame we don't get to know more about some of them. It would have been interesting to know what the qualifications in the loosest sense they actually had to give out the advice they did. In general, this isn't the sort of book you would go to to find actual "retro" advice you could use today. Well, perhaps some people would be tempted to try cures for a grey hair involving rum, coconut and iron citrate than I would be! There are a few recipes that would be do-able but they don't appeal to me as they are not in general vegetarian. I think the general pleasure of the book for me is the odder entries. I have heard of the Victorian language of flowers, in which one person could chose the flowers in their bouquet depending on what the flowers were supposed to symbolise. I had never heard of the secret language of postage stamps though. If you really want to upset Royal mail, you could put your stamp upside down in the left hand corner to give a secret message to your correspondant meaning "I love you". Try that on your tax return. Elsewhere you can learn how to tell someone's character from their eye colour - someone with dark blue ones apparently "lacks intellectuality". It doesn't do you much good to have eyes a pale shade of blue either - that denotes a selfish and listless nature! I am going to call my eyes mid blue from now on..
The entries are short, so this is a book that is easy to dip in and out of. It is the sort of thing I read while waiting for a train and I end up reading books in snatches. I would recommend it if you are interested in history, and want something different to read. You can learn a lot about the past without feeling you are reading a textbook. There isn't anything to put the advice in context but as a humour book, that is to be expected. Although I bought my copy in The Works some time ago, I have seen it in there recently, for the increased price of £2.99. The cover price is £10.99 which isn't too bad for a small hardback.