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Kate Sidley

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Twain’s advice was rather nice

On the “bizarre family heirlooms” section of our bookshelves (surprisingly large) is an advice book for what might today be known as teenagers, but in 1950 were referred to as young ladies.

It is called The Years of Grace, which is an optimistic take on adolescence, and not at all how I remember the teenage years. But I guess they couldn’t call it Years of Misery, Bad Behaviour and Wildly Inappropriate Clothing.

Anyway, this book is full of helpful advice on important aspects of life, such as deportment, personal hygiene, leisure activities and social skills. It is fairly modern in its views, encouraging girls to travel, to be public-spirited, and to learn to appreciate sport. When watching a game with one’s brother and his friends, “Don’t be content to be the least knowledgeable girl in the party.”

It gives guidance for careers, noting that “Her Majesty’s Civil Service is now freely open to women”, and advising “Don’t simply be a shorthand typist. Be a secretary.” Teaching is recommended only if you have the requisite physical and mental toughness to deal with supervisors, and with parents who don’t see the value of educating girls. “You must be prepared to suffer fools gladly – and the fools will not always be part of your class.” There are instructions on how to avoid halitosis which “together with B.O. is lethal to glamour”. No arguing with that.

Rather more subversive advice comes from Mark Twain in his Advice to Little Girls, which has recently been re-released with new illustrations. It is not an advice book; rather, a tongue-in-cheek short story for adult readers. Each of the helpful pointers starts off as a rather reasonable-sounding piece of advice, but there is an outrageous twist in the tale. Here are a few:

“If your mother tells you to do a thing, it is wrong to reply that you won’t. It is better and more becoming to intimate that you will do as she bids you, and then afterward act quietly in the matter according to the dictates of your best judgment.”

In the event that you have only a rag doll stuffed with sawdust and a playmate has a better toy, “You ought not to attempt a forcible swap with her, unless your conscience would justify you in it, and you know you are able to do it.”

“Good girls ought not to make mouths at their teachers for every trifling offence. This retaliation should only be resorted to under peculiarly aggravated circumstances.”

Twain was fascinated by young girls. After his wife’s death, he was lonely. “I had reached the grandpapa stage of life and what I lacked and what I needed was grandchildren,” he said. At the age of 72, he began collecting surrogate granddaughters between the ages of 10 and 16, “dear young creatures to whom life is a perfect joy and to whom it has brought no wounds, no bitterness, and few tears”. He called them his Angel Fish, and nicknamed the group The Aquarium. He even gave them little lapel pins, featuring angel fish. He corresponded with the girls and they, with their parents, sometimes visited him in New York.

We who have had our idealism and innocence destroyed by the likes of Jimmy Savile, Michael Jackson and a host of priests and scoutmasters might find this all a bit suspicious. Despite our cynical modern reservations, it all seems innocent and above board. That was a kinder, gentler era.

I would advise contemporary young women to be cautious of elderly celebrities bearing gifts.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist


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