Murder in Postscript releases March 28, 2023, and my amateur sleuth, Amelia Amesbury, writes a weekly column under the pseudonym Lady Agony. You might be asking yourself, why Lady Agony? Dear Reader, I’ll tell you.
Murder in Postscript is set in London, England, in 1860. At the time, periodicals were being produced in record numbers due to cheaper paper, printing, and postage costs. Many were called penny papers, penny weeklies, and penny dreadfuls because they cost a mere penny. The magazines were not only inexpensive but also filled with installments of dramatic stories. Serial publishing was a popular way to keep readers hooked and buying papers. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, for instance, was published from 1860-1861. Imagine waiting for the next installment of that masterpiece!
A regular feature of the magazines was the agony column, hence the name Lady Agony. Readers wrote in with their agonies (think: problems), and a writer at the magazine would respond with advice. If the format sounds familiar, it is. Today’s Annie’s Mailbox is a derivative of the same format, though many Victorian magazines printed only the response, not the letter, to save space.
The first agony columns were philosophic in nature, discussing life’s biggest questions, and were written by men. Later columns were written by women and focused on practical questions about etiquette, beauty, and relationships. Although the Victorian era was a time of great change, many agony aunts (as they would later be called) adhered to strict social rules in their advice.
However, the fictional Lady Agony isn’t afraid to veer from traditional opinion. New to London’s elite, she gives honest and practical guidance. Writing under a pseudonym frees her from the pressure of her title (countess) and in fact was very common at the time. Many writers took on ultra-feminine pen names to make their advice feel appropriate—if not a bit righteous.
These columns are fun, and I’ve had such a good time perusing them that it hardly feels like research. When I find a new book or archive, I could read for hours. Advice to Young Ladies, a collection of responses from the agony column in The London Journal 1855-1862, is one of these treasure troves. The neat thing about this book is it includes beautiful illustrations with the text, giving the reader a window into Victorian life. I’ve included a few here, and I hope you enjoy them as much as I do!