“Dear Silver Threads: My husband and I and our two daughters have been invited to spend Christmas with my extended family on an eastern Caribbean island where my brother will park his yacht and treat all of us to rooms in beachfront hotels. I’m eager to go but John says no. He and my brother (think Donald Trump) have a cool relationship dating from the day my sister-in-law left John — almost at the altar — to elope with my brother.”
“My mother and step-father, who owes John a lot of money he hasn’t paid back while continuing to live high on the hog, are also invited, as well as Dad and a pole dancer he became engaged to last fall and who doesn’t like me. But I’m dying to lie on the sunny sands and think I could cope if only John would give in. Failing that, should I just leave him ‘home alone’?”
A letter like this would be put in the “hoax” file by the descendants of
Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren, who reigned for years in this country over “the advice column,” which — it surprised me to learn — originated in The Athenian Mercury, a British periodical of the 1690s.
Since it’s only about three weeks till Christmas, I’m wondering whether these 17th-century Brits had some of the problems modern Americans write to their gurus about during the holidays and the run-up to The Big Family Get-Together. Did they worry about squabbles over the dinner table with family and in-laws? Did cousins make snarky remarks about their children’s manners? About their weight gains since the summer visit? Did husbands hide in the billard room rather than converse with tipsy dads and brothers and sarcastic mothers-in-law? Did they threaten not to even go to the holiday gatherings?
“While contemporary advice columns have a reputation for being pretty narrowly self-concerned—people often ask what to do about specific, personal problems—The Athenian Mercury dealt mostly (though not exclusively) with big, existential questions,” wrote Adrienne LaFrance in an article for Atlantic magazine.
“But also they were just people. … with questions about love affairs and petty arguments. They wanted to know how to communicate their feelings, and when it was okay to lie.”
Here are two letters Ms. LaFrance took from The Athenian:
Q: If I [am thinking of committing] any great and enormous crime and sin (as adultery), but do not personally and actually commit it, am I guilty of the crime and sin?
A: Though our thoughts generally proceed from the habit of our minds, upon which account we are the more guilty if they are disorderly, yet our inclinations likewise having great dependance on the temperament of our bodies, a bare disposition is much less culpable than an act; but where… there wants nothing but an opportunity to complete it, the crime is the same in the sight of God Almighty.
Q: Is it proper for women to be learned?
A: All grant that they may have some learning, but the question is of what sort, and to what degree? Some indeed think they have learned enough if they can distinguish between their husband’s breeches and another man’s… Others think they may pardonably enough read, but by no means be trifled with writing. Others again, that they ought neither to write nor read. A degree yet higher are those who would have them read plays, novels, and romances.
I’d love to read Miss Manners’ or Carolyn Hax’s answers to questions like these, wouldn’t you?