In this NZ exclusive, Dolly Alderton talks about her new advice book, Dear Dolly, why the ‘plight of comparison’ feels so visceral in your 20s and 30s, and how being in a relationship has only heightened her love for the importance of female friendship
“I was at an all-time low when I decided I wanted to try and fix everyone’s problems,” reads the first line from Dear Dolly, the new book by beloved UK journalist, author and screenwriter Dolly Alderton that showcases a selection of her answers to the much-loved ‘Dear Dolly’ advice column from the UK Sunday Times.
The column, which began in early 2020, came at an interesting time for both Dolly and, then, the entire globe. ‘Interesting’ doesn’t quite cut it, really – it was when, as Dolly puts it, her own annus horribilis coincided with the arrival of Covid-19 and we all got up close and personal with our mental health for the next two years (and counting).
“It’s only now that I get older, and with being in a relationship myself now, that I realise ‘Oh, that’s NOT the function of a romantic relationship…'”
“It was kind of an amazing time to have started giving out advice; at a time when, I suppose, everyone was in crisis,” Dolly says from her brightly coloured flat in London, her new kitten, Goldie, stopping in to join the conversation with her very furrowed cat brow. “The year of the pandemic, every letter was the same: people feeling really bored in their relationship, young people feeling like they weren’t making the most of their youth, or the emergency responses to the immediacy of lockdown.”
The second year, she says, the letters delved more into the long-lasting effects of lockdown: people having political rows with loved ones, single people panicked about not knowing how to meet potential love interests, and women scared that they were going to run out of time to have children. “That was something that really played on my mind – not for me personally, but because I’m of that age where fertility scare-mongering is everywhere,” she says. “Now, for the last year, it’s just been general shit,” she laughs of the letter inbox’s changing themes. “The problems haven’t decreased; now we’re getting more of the traditional ‘agony aunt’ questions.”
The heritage of the agony aunt is a long-held one – how many of us ripped through the sealed sections of teen girl magazines to read the problems of our peers (Crushes! Discharge! Periods!). But as we’ve grown older, the problems get bigger and the solutions become more varied.
One of the reasons that Dolly has been hailed as the ‘millennial Nora Ephron’ is because her body of work – whether her memoir, her fiction or the TV-adaptation of Everything I Know About Love – taps into one of the most all-consuming fears of the female experience in our 20s, 30s and beyond: the fear of being left-behind.
“People having children, people getting pregnant, some people struggling to get pregnant, some people not wanting to have children… it really throws a bomb into the middle of female friendships in your 30s, in a way that I hadn’t quite expected,” Dolly says.
‘No-one wants to be left out… there’s something that feels frightening if you don’t feel that you’re involved, even if it’s not something you want.”
“I’ve been thinking a lot about why other people’s life choices, that make them happy, why it feels so personal to us, in this particular decade for women, and what I keep returning to is that no-one wants to be left out,” she says. “It’s a very primal thing and I think that’s why a lot of these very strange feelings can happen, particularly when all your friends start falling in love, moving in partners, buying property, having children… there’s something that feels frightening if you don’t feel that you’re involved, even if it’s not something you want.”
The ‘plight of comparison,’ as she calls it, is heightened by the fact that so much of our lives – and our milestones – are now broadcast across social media. In a way, that’s why the place of the agony aunt is one of comfort: in reading both Dolly’s weekly columns, and in the selection featured in the book, the reader is given the gift of knowing that no one way of life is without its issues.
The married couple? They’re worried about boredom, or they’re arguing about money or sex. The hot single? They’re worried about being left behind, or that no date can live up to their romantic imagination. The pregnant mum is losing her identity, the single 32-year-old is debating egg freezing. Every path is as fraught as it is admired.
It’s one of the reasons that the other theme of Dolly’s work is that a good friendship involves celebrating each other’s different milestones. Because we all have different things we’re working towards – but not everyone gets a baby shower or a hens’ night to celebrate it.
“There is a very specific female energy of what it means to celebrate a woman in your life, with thought, and care, and specificity to them,” she says. “It’s really important – and I think we’re the only ones who do it for each other. It really is the function of women.”
“I didn’t think that, because I spent so much of life single. I thought these women had these men at home, doing what my friends did, but then f—king afterwards,” she laughs. “But it’s only now that I get older, and with being in a relationship myself now, that I realise ‘Oh, that’s NOT the function of a romantic relationship. Men don’t do that – they’re not that celebratory or thoughtful. They are, of course, supportive and wonderful in their own beautiful ways – and maybe some women have husbands who remember their wives favourite three-flavoured sponges and then stay up all night making a six-layered cake – but I think that’s what your girlfriends are for.”
Female friendship, she says, doesn’t get the ‘pomp and ceremony’ of romantic relationships, but it delivers a sometimes longer-lasting impact. “Making the women in their lives feel special is something girls are very good at,” Dolly says. “I don’t know why, but we just know that it’s important.”
It’s women that Dolly says make-up her own emotional port-of-call when she’s looking for advice. “I’ve always been obsessed with women – ever since I was a little girl. I have always had, I suppose, modern parlance would call them ‘girl crushes,’” she says. “I’ve always had women I look up to and that I get obsessed with, where I want to know all their thoughts and what they think about what I should be doing, what I should be wearing and who I should be dating, how I should live my life,” she says.
Her current line-up of choice? “Zadie Smith, Lena Dunham, Esther Perel, Mary Beard, Rose Matafeo, Issa Rae… women who I’m desperate to feel closer to in some way,” Dolly lists, also citing Nora Ephron’s non-fiction work as her first stop when seeking emotional refuge.
“The dream as a writer is to have lots of people reading you, obviously, and I’m very lucky… but then the challenge is that you have to lovingly forget them.”
The irony is that, of course, Dolly herself sits in many an imaginary support coven, due to her specific mix of open-hearted vulnerability and dark humour. This is something she ‘can’t really get her head around,’ she says, particularly as her audience grows. “I’m writing a new novel at the moment, which is different from anything I’ve ever written before but I just know it’s the right thing for me,” she says.
“But if I thought about those readers, every day, I wouldn’t be able to get a word out on the Google doc. The dream as a writer is to have lots of people reading you, obviously, and I’m very lucky… but then the challenge is that you have to lovingly forget them.”
As well as the new novel, she is hopeful that there will be a chance to return to the world of Maggie and the Camden flat, after the first series of Everything I Know About Love was so well-received both in the UK and US, as well as down here in NZ. “I’m so lucky with how my career has panned out; there is not a day where I don’t wake up and also go to bed grateful to whichever higher power has let me have this life. For me, going from the solitude of writing a novel to the noisy, multi-sensory experience of making a show nourishes the two different parts of my brain. If I can alternate between them for the rest of my life, I will be the happiest woman alive.”
Dear Dolly, published by Penguin, is available for pre-order now and will be available in all good bookstores soon. Revisit our 2020 chat with Dolly Alderton on the art of writing sex scenes, dealing with pandemic loneliness and her love for Jacinda Ardern.