In 1983 a Yorkshire woman in the springtime of her fifties dropped in to the Calderdale Archives building hoping to find a research topic about which to write a book. She came out with photocopies of 50 pages of the diary of a 19th century local celebrity whose ancestors had lived at Shibden Hall, near Halifax, for several generations.
The name of the researcher was Helena Whitbread and the diary she began to read was that of Anne Lister, 1791-1840. What happened next has been well-documented, and the story is set to reach an even wider audience this month with the airing of Gentleman Jack, a BBC/HBO drama series based on Anne Lister’s life.* This multi-faceted personality was a woman of impressive determination and intellect. She set herself a rigorous programme of study and self-improvement (Latin, Greek, algebra, music); she was an energetic, capable businesswoman, helping to manage her uncle’s estate and often joining the workmen in their physical tasks; she was a keen traveller, adventurer and mountaineer (the first woman to ascend Mont Perdu, 3355 metres, in the Pyrenees) . But her intimate journals (1806-1840) revealed something else. Anne was a lesbian, a charming, charismatic, ardent lover of women, with a strong sexual appetite and ‘a romantic and enthusiastic mind’.
Today’s blog gets passionate not just about Anne Lister, but also her equally fascinating 20th century amanuensis and interpreter, Helena Whitbread, who, as she put it, ‘serendipitously’ wandered in to those archives and emerged with those 50 pages. It was the first step on an adventure into ‘another woman’s time and life’ in which her efforts to elucidate Anne’s complex character and secret loves would occupy her for more than three decades.
I discovered Helena Whitbread’s books, The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister and No Priest But Love, on a visit to Yorkshire last year, thanks to my sister-in-law and her daughter, avid readers and amateur local historians. The main tourist attraction of the area is Haworth, home to the Brontës, but for local families Shibden Hall has long been known as a great place for a day out ever since it was gifted to the council in 1933. Anne went to live there in 1815, aged 24. Born in 1791, two years after the outbreak of the French Revolution, her own accounts of her childhood reveal a distinctly rebellious streak (she describes being whipped every day at school). This exuberant character exploded into the sheltered lives of her Uncle James, owner of Shibden, and Aunt Anne, his sister, bringing a style and a dash which set the local tongues wagging. A ‘tomboy’ in her youth, Anne, in her twenties, was masculine in appearance and behaviour, with a strong personality. Convinced from an early age that she was different from most women in terms of her sexual orientation, she was equally convinced that the difference was entirely natural. This comes across clearly in the journals of 1816 to 1826, on which Whitbread’s books are based. During this period Anne had three serious relationships and numerous flirtations, but, although a regular churchgoer, she finds no contradiction in the way she loves other women and religious orthodoxies. Her ‘difference’ arose from her birth and was thus a part of her nature, bestowed on her by ‘that Almighty Being who had created me.’
Anne was also confident about the validity-indeed superiority-of her own feelings as compared with the artificial and inconsistent qualities of ‘Sapphic love‘. Remarkably, she did not suffer the social and familial rejection which one might expect, but was able to discuss her situation (albeit in veiled terms)** with her unmarried aunt and uncle, whose main concern, once they understood that marriage to a man was out of the question, seemed to be that their niece should find a partner with whom she could be happy. Similarly, although the subject of gossip, Anne was accepted into genteel social circles where allusions were often made to her preferences and occasional flirting took place. The only openly prejudicial treatment she mentions in any detail occurred during her encounters with jeering local youths. These seemed to invigorate rather than traumatise her; in one incident, when a man tried to put his hand up her skirt, she was about to hit him with her umbrella when he ran off: ‘I did not feel in the least frightened, but indignant and enraged.’***
It’s interesting to compare Anne’s accounts of her interactions with other women of her social standing with those of, for example, Jane Austen, who, in her novels (Emma was published in 1815) gives us a very different picture of what ladies discussed when they took tea. Of course that was in genteel Hampshire rather than unpredictable Yorkshire, where the following year, 1816, saw the birth of Charlotte Brontë, who, along with her sisters, would have polite society grabbing for the smelling salts with the publication of Jane Eyre and, worse still, Wuthering Heights just seven years after Anne’s premature death. But all these women shared one important similarity–the limitations of their condition. For women of a certain class without independent means, the future offered few choices: a good marriage, with its attendant financial security and respectability; a somewhat lowly and precarious ‘career’ as governess or teacher; or a life of spinsterhood, dependent on the goodwill of relatives.
But this is merely a bare bones summary of Anne’s life. More will be revealed in the TV series. But my advice (Dear Reader, have I ever mislead you?) is to go straight to Helena Whitbread. Not only do her books contain everything necessary to know about Anne during this crucial, formative period, they are a work of art in themselves, arising from a labour of love in the truest sense. The mere introduction to The Secret Diaries… had me throwing up my hands and shouting ‘Hallelujah’. The quality of the prose is a delight-clear, cogent, erudite, getting directly to the heart of the matter and luring the reader irresistibly on to the journals themselves. I didn’t stop till I got to the end of the second book and only then did the full import of this astonishing achievement really hit me.
So who is this other remarkable lady? Helena Whitbread was born into a poor Halifax family and forced through ill health to leave school aged 14. After marriage and four children, it was only in her late thirties that she was able to fulfil her dream of continuing her studies. Further education, a university degree, a teaching career…this ‘eternal student’ continued to pursue her academic interests, little suspecting what lay ahead when she took home those first pages of Anne’s diary: years of painstaking work and the gradual revelation of a historical figure destined to fire the imagination of readers. From 1816 to 1826 the fascinating minutiae of Anne’s daily life at home and on her travels (dress, food, health, study, finances, walking, riding, social visits) are interposed with the ecstasy and torments of forbidden love, mainly as they relate to Isabella Norcliffe and Mariana Lawton, her two most intense affairs at this time, along with Maria Barlow whom she met in Paris. (Her relationship with Anne Walker, whom she ‘married’****, which came later, starting in 1832 and continuing until her death in 1840, is the subject of Gentleman Jack.) Anne’s innermost thoughts in her beloved journal (‘writing my journal has amused & done me good. I seemed to have opened my heart to an old friend. I can tell my journal what I can tell none else’), her romantic and social aspirations, the complexity of her often contradictory character over these ten years are all vividly illuminated through extracts that have been judiciously selected, rigorously annotated and indexed, and linked by passages which not only put events into a larger social, historical and literary context but also continue the narrative as seen through the eyes of Helena Whitbread.
Perhaps most moving is Anne’s ‘sentimental education’ as regards Mariana Lawton, with whom she fell in love in her twenties, but was unable to live with due to the circumstances of both women. Anne, even if she had dared to openly cohabit with another woman at the time, did not have the financial independence to do so. The same was true for Mariana, who entered into a marriage with a much older man, Charles Lawton*****, with both women hoping that a conveniently early demise (!) would leave them in a position to be together. The gradual disillusion of Anne is heart-breakingly recounted, leaving her, at the end of 1824, a much-changed person. ‘I always considered your marriage legal prostitution,’ she tells Mariana. Like all romantics, she yearns for more. ‘It must be an elegant mind joint with a heart distilling tenderness at every pore that alone can make me happy,’ she writes in 1823. Mariana, she concluded, was too ‘worldly’, ‘she has not that magnanimity of truth that satisfies a haughty spirit like mine’…‘the chivalry of heart was gone. Hope’s brightest hues were brushed away.’
The journals in total comprise 6600 pages and 4 million words, of which one sixth are in code. Whitbread writes: ‘Curiosity, allied to the thrill of an intellectual challenge, gripped me.’ Even before she got her hands on them, their story reads like a detective novel. In the 1890s, years after Anne’s death, they were discovered and deciphered by two men, John Lister, last of the family to live at the Hall, and his friend Arthur Burrell. What they found-‘an intimate account of homosexual practices among Miss Lister and her many ‘friends’’-so shocked them that Burrell advised Lister to destroy them. Instead, he hid them behind a panel where they remained until his death in 1933, when the Hall and its contents became the property of the borough of Halifax. Whitbread writes: ‘an iron curtain of conspiracy’ then descended over the coded sections of the diaries in the interests of preserving the family reputation.
When she took on the Herculean task of transcribing the diaries, Whitbread not only had to learn how to use the key to the code but also attempt to read the uncoded entries which were written in semi-legible handwriting, with words running together and crisscrossing the pages. (She has an interesting note about how letters in those days were written in cramped writing using every inch of the notepaper in order to reduce the cost of postage.) Apart from these physical and technical hurdles, other concerns arose. Her first obligation, she tells us, was to keep the author’s authentic voice; then, once she had found it and realised its uniqueness, another dilemma popped up–should she put this intimate journal into the hands of the wider public? If so, in what form? ‘From that day (in 1983) I have found myself engaged in a literary, historical and cultural adventure,’ she writes in the introduction to No Priest But Love ‘…Halifax, for me, became two different towns. Physically I moved around…twentieth century Halifax. Mentally, I lived in the small nineteenth century town…’
The enormity of the task was staggering, demanding an approach at complete odds with today’s thirst for the instant and the immediate. But the result is a triumph, a passionate engagement, an homage to the slow and the beautiful, to le temps de vivre, time to live, learn, read, enjoy, savour and reflect. Qualities, I’m sure, that Anne Lister would have been the first to appreciate.
‘Oh books, books! I owe you much. Ye are my spirit’s oil, without which, its own friction against itself would wear it out.’ Anne Lister’s journal, 20 July 1823.
Thanks for reading this lengthy blog! I’ve just discovered Helena’s books are selling out fast in paperback, but are available on Kindle 😉
*A previous BBC series was aired in 2010 starring Maxine Peake as Anne Lister
**’No doubt both aunt and uncle drew their own conclusions about Anne’s sex life.’ (No Priest But Love)
***She was however deeply ‘mortified’ on a trip to Scarborough in 1823 by Mariana’s criticisms of her masculine appearance. (The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister)
****the two women took the sacrament together at the Holy Trinity church in York in 1834
*****Anne contracted a venereal disease from Mariana, which, to her shame, she passed on to Isabella. (Mariana had caught it from Charles.)
Note: Readers interested in finding out more can log on to the archives here