The promise of expertise: advice literature and the self in twentieth-century Britain

Session Abstract : This panel examines three different sources of advice relating to issues of selfhood, identity and citizenship across three periods of social change during the twentieth century. In particular the panelists consider how sources of authority and expertise have provided individuals with the means to make sense of their experiences of change specifically in relation to mental health, female identity and sexual relationships. Current criticisms of expertise and its role in the alienation of British citizens from civic life suggest it is timely to examine earlier incarnations of particular forms of expertise that were sought and valued for their authority on critical elements of everyday life and the role of the citizen.

As scholars of what might broadly be termed the self-help genre have noted, across the twentieth century such works have both reflected and responded to contemporary social problems and have thus been involved in promulgating various social changes. This set of papers will raise questions about the kinds of advice people sought, the sources that were constituted as expert and the basis of their authority, as well as exploring their contribution to the processes of change that prompted such advice seeking.

By examining self-help books about nervous conditions in the early decades of the twentieth century, articles in the Girl Guide periodical on romantic and sexual relationships between 1945 and 1960 and the discourses on body hair in Jackie magazine in the 1970s and 1980s, these papers trace the sources of expertise that individuals turned to in negotiating their identity as a nervous, sexual and female self. In doing so, the panelists illustrate ways in which people navigated the changing contemporary social and cultural values relating to lifestyles, gender roles and more broadly the concept of good citizenship.
Session Chair: Claire Langhamer. Uni of Sussex

Paper 1 Abstract : ‘The Stress and Strain of Modern Life:’ managing the nervous self in early twentieth century Britain.

Jill Kirby,  University of Sussex

In this paper I explore how those suffering from ‘nerves’ in the early twentieth century sought help for a condition that many understood as a response to living in turbulent times. I investigate how self-help books offered readers a means of constructing, understanding and managing a nervous self in a period when awareness of the possibilities and fragilities of the psyche was growing. As Thomson has shown, forms of popular psychology were increasingly available and I will argue that self-help books were particularly attractive in offering both discretion and the promise of individual agency. By examining how such books conceptualised nervous conditions, I build on Jackson’s argument that contemporary perceptions of physical and mental health reflected ‘wider misgivings about the hazards of industrial and technological modernization.’

Discussions of causation directly linked individual experiences of nervous conditions to particular constituents of contemporary urban life, revealing unease at social and economic change. Suggested remedies, somewhat paradoxically, while acknowledging external causation, largely focused on the failings and inherent weakness of the individual sufferer. This, I argue, illustrates an underlying approach to psychological ill-health that framed it as the problem and responsibility of the individual, reflecting both the limited scope of remedial advice in self-help books, but also a wider organisational and state response to sufferers that lasted well beyond the period.

I argue that the perception that ‘modern times’ were particularly stressful in the early twentieth century is only one instance of a regular and repeated pattern, still current today. I further suggest that it illustrates an understandable human response to a sense of powerlessness in the face of change and that pathologising that powerlessness in the form of the nervous self was far easier than acknowledging it.

Paper 2 Abstract : ‘Averting Misunderstandings’: The Girl Guide Movement and Education for Courtship in Post-war Britain

 Sian Edwards, Lecturer, University of Winchester

In the August 1960 issue of the Girl Guide youth organisation’s periodical, The Guider, contributor Nancy Warner wrote of the importance of educating members in the practice and complexities of courtship. Instilling in girls a knowledge of how to conduct themselves in romantic relationships, particularly when it came to sex, in Warner’s view, could be essential in ‘Averting Misunderstandings’ that could often occur in mixed sex friendships when sexual feelings were aroused. The publication of this article exemplifies an important shift in the training provided by the Girl Guides that occurred following the Second World War. While in the past, as Richard Voeltz and Sam Pryke have argued, the Girl Guides, and their brother movement the Boy Scouts, acted as a form of sexual regulation in reaction to fears over the sexuality of young people after the First World War, the post-war period in comparison saw a growing acknowledgement that the organisation needed to actively prepare girls for romantic and sexual relationships. Such training was a response to the climate of the times, in which the growing popularity of marriage saw girls increasingly getting married at younger ages. However, it was also a response to mounting concerns regarding the perceived promiscuity of modern girls and their inability to identify ‘authentic’ love from pure desire. At the core of these concerns were two figures: the naïve girl and the ‘oversexed’ girl. Both of which spoke to the heart of organisational fears that a lack of guidance with regards to sensible courtship was impinging on the ability of teenage girls to make good decisions when it came to the opposite sex. But importantly, the emphasis on both these figures highlights the ways in which the ability to manage one’s emotional self became central to notions of good citizenship after the war. This paper will explore the increased emphasis on courtship education in the Girl Guide organisation after the Second World War. I will argue that rather than being a form of sexual regulation, this education placed significant emphasis on teaching girls the ability to identify authentic love as a route to self-fulfillment and ultimately good citizenship during the period from 1945-1960.

Paper 3 Abstract : ‘Nice girls don’t have superfluous hair’: Body hair removal guidance and girlhood identity 1964-1980

Laura Cofield, University of Sussex

This paper evolves from an examination of how women have acquired the skills and understanding of the expectations of hairlessness in late twentieth century Britain. It explores how teenage girls in particular negotiated a multiplicity of prescriptive discourses and participated within exchanges of knowledge, building upon Tinkler’s assertion that young female consumers as historical agents are ‘actively involved in the production of meaning’. In so doing, this paper demonstrates that the act of depilation became implicitly and explicitly interwoven into a social dialogue of good citizenship alongside hygiene, psychological well-being, romantic love and the cementing of female friendships. Consequently, body hair removal and its sources of advice became an intrinsic part of the process of ‘becoming’ into female adulthood and provides a case study to demonstrate how girls have engaged with their present and future selves though consumptive body modifying practices and performance.

As its focus this paper explores how attitudes to hairlessness and its management fluctuated in the ‘turbulent period’ of gender relations between 1964 and 1980. By interweaving a close textual reading of removal guidance offered within the advice columns and beauty features of Jackie magazine alongside personal testimonies from Mass Observation archive and oral history research, I interrogate Tinkler’s claim that maintenance of a feminine appearance increases in significance ‘in periods were gender relations were disrupted’. Through undertaking a mixed methods approach, I suggest there is evidence of a more complex negotiation of resistive ideas and attitudes informed by, for example, countercultural and feminist movements. The precarity of hairlessness regulation during this period exposes the contested nature of the adolescent female body as both a site of labour and of leisure; pain and pleasure. This has wider implications on how we might conceptualise girlhood femininity and agency within histories of youth and gender in the post-war era.

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