A modern woman: The 1890s agony aunt from 52 Camden Square
PUBLISHED: 17:30 05 December 2018
Annie S Swan was a noted suffragist and novelist but, from her Camden Square home, she was also friend and confidant to a generation of anxious and lonely women – she was the agony aunt for The Woman at Home magazine.
Now, a century to the day after women first voted in a British General Election, writer and performer Cathianne Hall is staging a one-woman show which explores Annie’s work at The Woman at Home – which she also edited for 24 years – in the actual Camden building where she wrote her “Over the teacups” columns.
Cathianne came across the story of Annie’s advice column when researching the history of the building, now the London Irish Centre, in preparation for a previous gig during last year’s Camden fringe.
She told this newspaper: “I love to find and highlight hidden women’s history. I was just looking through the building’s past and struck on gold dust. I had never heard of her – not many had – but someone tipped me off that she was a noted suffragist.
“That got me interested but it wasn’t even the tip of the iceberg.”
Annie, who was professionally known by her maiden name, published more than a hundred works of fiction and even went on to run for parliament (unsuccessfully) as a Liberal in 1922, and then to be a founding member of the Scottish National Party.
“I discovered that the years she was living at 52 Camden Square she was working for The Woman at Home. I got a hold of copies of the magazine written in the 1890s and began to read.
“It’s interesting. Her advice is of its time – it can be moralising. But it’s an incredible insight to the lives of normal women back then.
“This is the age of the modern woman! These women are resourceful, funny, brave, curious and they can feel a change coming with the growing women’s movement, whether they supported it or not.”
The show sees Cathianne dramatise some of the stories that appear in “Over the teacups”. She said: “It’s a fun night, and there’ll be gin.”
However, Cathianne told the Ham&High it was sometimes troubling to read the columns.
“The letters that women were writing in – they range from things very, very trivial through to really quite serious matters.
“At times you have to read between the lines – there are some clearly whose husbands are abusive, for example. Not to mention a really heartbreaking story of a women whose husband’s lost interest in her, and she doesn’t know how to fix it.”
Annie’s advice occasionally seems uncomfortable to a modern reader, Cathianne said.
“It can be really difficult to put your head into the 1890s and to imagine being a woman.
“In her column she’s not necessarily raising the flag for women’s rights. It can be quite difficult to read with my modern head on. She’s always very supportive of women who are going through difficult times.”
Cathianne told this newspaper that Annie’s personal life was intriguing, too.
She added: “She was a working woman herself, of course. She starts writing and helps to fund her husband – who was a teacher – to go to medical school. It’s a pretty unusual partnership.
“She’s also getting letters from women right across the spectrum. Women from all over the British Empire were writing in all saying: ‘These are my concerns.’”
Cathianne she was fascinated by the way Annie curated a community in the column.
“Women are writing in to help others, too – the responses can be fabulous. There’s a wonderful companionship. Some of the letters are very funny, too, the women considering whether whether smoking is appropriate!”
Annie herself was affected by the anguish of the women she advised. In her autobiography she wrote: “The effect on me at first was disastrous. I could not sleep at night. So much anguish penned to me. I learned more about the seamy side of life than I had imagined existed.”
Cathianne is using the show to fundraise for the My Body Back project which provides specialist health services to women who’ve experienced sexual violence.
She explained: “It was a thread running through some of the letters, and it seemed a powerful way of bringing it all together.”
Tickets for the show, taking place at 7.30 on December 14 at 50-52 Camden Square are £10. See cathiannehall.com/modern-girl-1895