Dear Cleo, Frida and Mary – advice from agony aunts across the ages

Jennifer Wright shares her ideas of what some of history’s most powerful and provocative women would say about relationship problems today

Sunday 20 October 2019 12:59
Antony and Cleopatra, 1883, by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema
Antony and Cleopatra, 1883, by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

The women of the past were anything but the doting caricatures they’re often made out to be. They were under a lot of the same pressures when it came to dating and mating as modern women, and many of their solutions would be considered progressive, even by today’s standards. I wrote a book, We Came First: Relationship Advice from Women Who Have Been There, imagining how women throughout history – from Cleopatra’s time to Frida Kahlo’s – might have responded to contemporary relationship struggles. Here are five women who are long dead but know exactly how difficult it can be to be alive (and looking for love) today.

Cleopatra on making the first move

Dear Cleo,

There’s this super sexy barista who works in a coffee shop near my apartment and he’s as hot as my 8am cappuccino. I want to chat him up, but I tend to be a little bit on the shy side. Should I just hope he notices me? Should I approach him? Any advice for how to heat things up?

Coffee Talk

Dear Coffee Talk,

Of course you should approach him. I would say do it because it’s the 21st century, but this strategy worked well for me 2,000 years ago, too. When people didn’t want me to meet Julius Caesar, I had myself smuggled to him in a bedroll. As that awesome wordsmith Plutarch pointed out: “It was by this device of Cleopatra’s that Caesar was first captivated, for she showed herself to be a bold coquette.” Damn right. When I met Mark Antony for the first time, I made quite the entrance. I went to him in a barge and surrounded myself with handsome young men, dressed as cupids. The word on the street was I looked like “a goddess in gold”. I understand that barges are hard to come by these days, but bedrolls may be more widely available. Find what works for you. Maybe that’s wearing your fiercest outfit the next time you go into his coffee shop. Maybe it’s buying him a triple-shot espresso. Maybe instead of your name, you give him your number. Remember: There’s no shame in making the first move, and there never was. Who makes it happen? You. You do.


Frida Kahlo on having your own space

Dear Frida,

I love my husband but I don’t love living with my husband. He’s a slob. I’m very neat. He leaves everything out, and I spend my time cleaning up, because the mess will drive me insane otherwise. We fight constantly. This was never a problem when we both had our own separate spaces. I dread turning into someone who nags him all the time. Do you think it’s possible to be close with someone and also have your own space?

Home Alone

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo at their home in Mexico City

Dear Home Alone,

Absolutely. I dearly loved my husband, Diego Rivera, but we had a very contentious relationship. We even divorced before remarrying the following year. We worked best when we could be close, but not on top of each other. Our architect correctly deduced that I should live alone. But not too alone. That meant the construction of our twin houses in Mexico City, right next to each other. I had a blue one, and Diego had a white one. They were joined by a rooftop bridge that led from my studio to his. We could visit one another when we wanted to, and flee when we wanted to. Sometimes space is the best thing for a relationship, and for your soul. Find ways to be alone but not lonely.


Empress Josephine on celebrating divorce

Dear Empress Josephine,

I’m getting divorced. It’s not horrible. Well, it is kind of horrible, but it really needs to happen. Possibly because we both kept cheating on each other – I’m sure you can relate. It feels weird to have no ceremony going out of this marriage, though. We entered it with a huge wedding, and now it feels like we’re just slinking away in a courthouse. How do you feel about the idea of a “divorce party”? Are they super tacky or are they cool?

Party of One

Dear Party of One,

My divorce ceremony from Napoleon was beautiful. Like you, our parting came after a lot of living. I became jealous and unhappy. We cheated on each other. I couldn’t have children, and he needed an heir. I was devastated when my husband suggested divorce, but the ceremony provided some much needed closure. We both read statements of devotion to each other. I mean, get this from my beloved ex-husband: “Far from ever finding cause for complaint, I can to the contrary only congratulate myself on the devotion and tenderness of my beloved wife. She has adorned 13 years of my life; the memory will always remain engraved on my heart.” We kissed at the end of it all and, to Napoleon’s credit, he made sure I was left with the financial means to live comfortably. We remained friends all the days of our lives. If you think having a divorce ceremony will provide closure, I recommend it. It certainly helped me.


The Divorce of the Empress Josephine by Henri Frederic Schopin, 1809

Lucy Hicks Anderson on fighting for your rights

Dear Lucy,

I’m transgender, and I live in a country where marriage to my partner isn’t legal. For many people, my very existence is seen as an abomination, and there are still plenty of policies that discriminate against the transgender community. Many people who encounter me don’t know that I’m transgender. I want to speak out about who I am, but I’m afraid it will make life for me and my family more difficult.


Dear Transgressive,

In my day, being known as a trans woman made life much more difficult. I’m still proud to be who I am. I was born biologically male, but that did not align with who I was on the inside. I had wished to be known as a girl since my school days, and I was fortunate to have a physician who suggested my mother raise me as female. I went on to live, dress and act as a woman. And I lived like a fabulous woman. I ran a brothel and speakeasy all through the 1920s, patronised by the town’s fanciest folk, and I was a well-liked hostess in my community. It was only after I married in 1944 that my problems began: I was tried for perjury because I’d “claimed” to be a woman when I got married. I went to court and stood up for our right as a couple to be married. I told reporters: “I defy any doctor in the world to prove that I am not a woman.” But I didn’t succeed and was convicted of perjury. Ultimately, we moved to Los Angeles, where we lived peacefully until my death in 1954. Never give up fighting for love and your right to happiness.


Mary Shelley on grieving

Dear Mary,

My husband passed away a few years ago. I’m having a hard time letting go. It’s been two years, and I still can’t bring myself to get rid of his clothing and other personal items. I know I should, but I don’t want to. Is it really so odd to keep a few items from your departed beloved?

Not Letting Go

Dear Not Letting Go,

Ha, no – it’s totally normal. Look, I was married to the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and we ran away together when I was just 17. (We couldn’t be properly married until later, after his first wife committed suicide.) Tragically, he drowned six years later off of the Italian coast. My dear husband was cremated. All of his remains burned – except for his heart. It was thought to have calcified and thus “resisted cremation as readily as a skull, a jaw or fragments of bone”. As EE Cummings would write long after my own death, I carried his heart with me (in a silk bag). After I died in 1852, his heart was found inside my desk, wrapped in the pages of his poem Adonaïs. So, that’s how I handled grief. By comparison, keeping a few of your husband’s old shirts seems downright quaint.


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