Flower Crime: a True Confession

uncancellable narcissi

In today’s Woke World where anything can be cancelled from Chaucer to cervixes, it’s good to remember the affirmation of the world’s greatest living painter :

Spring Cannot be Cancelled 

Having said that…

Extract from Chapter 28 From Nettles to Nightingales

As any gardener will tell you, autumn is bulb-planting time. I will go further and argue that those possessing the merest smidgeon of British DNA are driven to plant bulbs each autumn in the same way swallows wave ‘Bye Bye’ and head back to Africa. UK supermarkets are full of special offers, gaudily-illustrated catalogues from Holland drop through British letterboxes like bonbons, and Britannia-en-masse gets out trowels and kneeling mats. Why? Because for us northerners, bulbs are the eagerly-awaited signs of spring, bright harbingers after dark winter days.

Where’s spring?

I remember the whole Yorkshire family longing for spring. As early as February we would go outside and sniff the air, hoping for that faint delicious draught that heralds winter’s close. The change from light to dark, from death to rebirth, could be summed up by the biannual pronouncements of my maternal Grandmother. In autumn she would glumly observe ‘th’ neets are drawin’ in’ (trans: the nights are drawing in) while spring merited the cheerful pronouncement ‘th’ neets are drawin’ out.’ In neighbouring houses every scrap of garden, no matter how humble, would celebrate the event with a joyful show of snowdrops, crocuses, daffodils, narcissi, tulips and primroses.

Daffodils and narcissi The Backs, Cambridge

In Cambridge, where I later lived, one of the most iconic sights was ‘the backs’ of the colleges, in particular King’s. Every March, these placid green swathes of sheep-and-cow-dotted meadowland sloping gently to the River Cam and extending beyond as far as the road with copses of tall trees, would be invaded by camera-clicking tourists, angling for the perfect shot: in the foreground, the explosions of thousands of crocuses, daffodils and narcissi, in the middle, the river, bridges and willows,  and topping it all off like a spun sugar wedding cake ornament in the background,  the magnificent cathedral of King’s College.

King’s College, seen from the River Cam.
Photo Mike McBey courtesy Wikimedia https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cambridge_(49343363248).jpg

In Toulouse, we’d always had spring pots of tulips on the terrace. At The Cowshed it was a different story. Some of our most spectacular garden failures had been bulbs. In 2013 we eagerly awaited the results of the ‘Buckingham Palace Tulips’ project. Envisioned as an arresting double row of proud, letter-box red blooms lining the north wall like guardsmen and causing farmers passing by on tractors to shout ‘boudiou!’ and doff their caps, the reality was a handful of thin-stemmed droopers falling nose first into the grass. Ditto for the drifts of crocuses (a grand total of 9 huddled in misery down the side of the slope) and snowdrops (what snowdrops?)

So, with my genetic heritage, why was the bulb initiative a total flop? Was it the climate? The terrain? Or could it be the past catching up with the Head Gardener, making her pay for former sins…was it, in short, Tulip Karma?

Was it tulip karma??

The awful truth was that, as a child, I had committed a flower crime. The shameful story was handed down from generation to generation, and the experience remains imprinted on my mind in lurid technicolour. The drama occurred at my grandparents’ house. My paternal grandparents, as recounted in an earlier chapter, lived in a one-up, one-down rented terrace property with their six children. My maternal grandparents on the other hand, by dint of scrimping, saving and only having one child, had risen in the world, finally able to buy a small terraced house with the luxury of an indoor bathroom.  Along with the other families who had bought in the same street, this was the equivalent of reaching domestic Nirvana. Thirty-odd identical houses ran up the left-hand side of the street, another thirty-odd ran down the opposite side. At the back of each house were long, narrow gardens separated by low rustic fences, and which were on a par, Nirvana-wise, with the indoor bathrooms.  In Grandad’s well-tended plots, not a weed dared to poke its head through the abundant clusters of flowers characteristic of the English garden – marguerites, hollyhocks, lupins, poppies – ending in a rustic arch covered in roses. The rectangle of lawn in the middle was cricket-pitch smooth and weedless. This garden was my kingdom: I was its miniature tyrannical ruler with two slaves. My mother being an only child, logic decreed that, as first grandchild, I should be hopelessly spoiled, cossetted and indulged, an angel who could do no wrong. At the bottom of the garden, next to the shed, Grandad had erected a swing; one of his jobs was to push the young angel up and down until his arms dropped off.

When Grandad wasn’t on duty, it was Grandma’s turn, telling stories as she sat in her chair on the lawn. In my earliest memories she is wearing dark glasses and a green eyeshade, like the ones worn by 19th C telegraphers. Born into a large family, she had contracted a lethal combination of chicken pox and diphtheria which left her with scarring on both retinas. Although kept off school for long periods, she was a smart, intelligent child who loved to read whenever her damaged eyesight permitted. By the time I came onto the scene, she was undergoing treatment with a specialist involving the application of drops and creams to burn off the scars. The results were variable; at times she was able to see well enough to read and write; on other, terrifying, days, she would wake up to find her world had dimmed to vague shapes and faded colours. It was only as I grew older that I understood what an indomitable spirit she had, living not only with this physical handicap but also the fear that one day a final darkness would descend and the colours would never return.

One of her favourite expressions, much-used to express her amazement and gratitude at having risen to the heights of a two-up-two-down residence with indoor toilet and garden, was ‘Ee! We live like fighting cocks!’ I had no idea what a fighting cock was, but dimly grasped that these farmyard creatures were living the high life, like their cousins, the pigs in clover.  It was only later I found out the terrible truth–they were being fattened up and cossetted in order to take part in gladiatorial combats similar to those in the bloody arenas of ancient Rome! Much later I learnt that their French cousins didn’t fare any better, being fattened up with the express intention of ending their days in a pie, the French equivalent of Grandma’s exclamation being ‘nous vivons comme des coqs en pâte.’

Poppies in the fairy kingdom

Grandma was a wonderful story teller. All the old favourites – Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Bears, were recounted in dramatic detail, with different voices. She also invented tales of her own, inspired by her new garden where she would sit in a chair, narrating wondrous events like a Celtic bard, while I sat on the grass, spellbound.  As she nudged my imagination into realms of beauty and magic, flower kingdoms with fairies, princes and princesses, witches and wizards, all of these imaginary journeys became linked to that unique, grounded feeling of love and security imparted to children by the presence of a beloved human story-teller. Listening to Grandma’s voice, I could look around at the enclosed world of marguerites and Michaelmas daisies, all taller than me, and feel safe and happy.

So, Reader, what then possessed the little angel, that fateful day in the spring of her fourth year, to embark on a campaign of carnage and destruction?

A better question would be ‘who’? Also visiting his grandparents that day was a certain Brian, a year older than me and obviously destined to become a future  leader of a satanic cult. As the grownups were busy preparing Sunday lunch, the devil-child Brian lured me away from the fairy kingdom and led me up and down the backs of every house in the street where we gleefully nipped off the tops of every blooming tulip in every spring garden. A red and yellow trail of disaster lay in our wake.

Naturally, the crime was discovered. The entire street came out to witness our walk of shame, marched along by outraged grandparents (the first time I had ever experienced their wrath) to apologise to every scandalised householder and injured gardener. As I sobbed out a litany of ‘sorry-I-promise-never-to do-it again’, the spawn of Satan trailed behind, bottom lip thrust out. His parting shot, accompanied by a look of false righteousness and a pointing finger was:

‘She told me to do it!’

Thus concluded my first life lessons about the wickedness of destroying beautiful things and the inconstancy of the male species.

‘Frailty, thy name is woman!’

Joyeux printemps to all, hoping for brighter days ahead!

(Since writing this, Storm Eunice has battered the UK, 1 million people without power and gusts of 122 mph wind have been recorded 🙁 so extra-special thoughts go to those across the Channel.)

Looking for something to read? There’s a treat in store with Sheila Patel’s latest book in  her Aunt Sheila’s Pandemic Diaries Series The Vaccine Strikes Back : ”the writing sparkles…” “genuinely funny but also touching in places…” “Brilliantly written account of the madness of the pandemic.” What are you waiting for?

Meanwhile, not far from the Singh’s corner shop in Bradford is Haworth, home of the Brontës and the setting for The Passage of Desire, which is FREE to download February 19, 20 and 21. Enjoy!

 #LoveBooks! #LoveYorkshire!

©Laurette Long 2022







Coming Home To Haworth: Charlotte Brontë’s ‘little book’.

Screenshot of the crowdfunding campaign to buy Charlotte’s book

Last Monday, November 18th, a little book came up for auction in Paris; a VERY little book, one and a half by two and a half inches. The author was Charlotte Brontë, aged 14, and the tiny volume is one of six miniatures written in the Yorkshire parsonage where the Brontë children grew up. A campaign was launched by The Brontë Society to buy it, and a huge wellspring  of public goodwill enabled the organisers to reach, and go beyond, the crowdfunding target of £80,000  showing just how much value we still place on the world of books and literature, and how the amazing Brontë story resonates not only for locals but also for readers all over the world.

Haworth Station

‘Go, litel book!’  Go back to Haworth and do homage to thy mistress. According to the latest news it is still in Paris, but has its passport (!) and will head off shortly, hopefully going on display in February 2020 after renovations at the Museum are completed. 2020 will also celebrate the bicentenary of Anne.

You can find out more about the Brontës  and even join the society (one of the oldest literary societies in the world) here. There are also numerous  videos on YouTube about them (one I particularly like is listed in the links at the end of the blog).  But as part of my own personal homage to those sisters, in 2017 I wrote a novella, The Passage of Desire, set in Haworth in the early 1990s. It’s FREE to download this weekend, Saturday 23rd and Sunday 24th November, here and here. (Kind) reviewers have commented:

‘I loved the rich descriptions of the Yorkshire countryside and how the passion evoked in Wuthering Heights is intertwined with the story.

…the Brontë landscape is beautifully described; clearly the writer knows it very well. There are some pleasing literary references which Brontë fans will enjoy…..

…the Brontës float in and out of the story, both literally and metaphorically, and the tale is something of a homage to romanticism.’

I hope those floating Brontë spirits, wherever they may be, are celebrating this weekend. Youpee!

The moors “long swells of amethyst-tinted hills…”

Read on for an extract from The Passage of Desire, in which 7-year-old Caroline, one of the narrators, visits the parsonage museum for the first time with her mother, Alexandra, and their hosts, Juliet and Oliver, and is struck by the miniature booklets.

Chapter 13 The Brontë Museum

The churchyard, Haworth

Caroline had been pestering for a visit to the museum. And so, one bright morning, they found themselves in the shade of the village churchyard on their way to the parsonage. The tower of St Michael and All Angels was just visible as they stepped into a forest of graves, wedged into every available inch of space, the headstones standing shoulder to shoulder like chessmen, some with pointed tops, some shaped like mitres, others representing stars or fleur-de-lys, or crowned with ornate pediments. Some were upright, others listed to the side. Moss and lichen had blurred the blackened inscriptions but it was possible to make out the words if you looked closely. Thousands of bodies, it was said as many as forty thousand, lay together in this confined space, a reminder that the now pretty village of Haworth had once been a grim and insalubrious place, home to workers in the textile mills that spread across the valley, fed by the plentiful water pouring down from the rain-soaked moors. Tuberculosis and other diseases stalked the village streets, carrying off the weak. Sometimes, stopping to look, you would see the names of entire families marked on the headstones. Juliet always got the shivers when she passed through.

Caroline danced from one grave to another squatting down to decipher the words.

‘Here lies Martha, be…love…beloved daughter of James and Eliza…died in the ten, the tenth, year of her age…Luke, in the 2nd year of his age, Mary, in the 6th year of her age.’

She stopped short and slid her hand into Alexandra’s.

‘Why did all these children die, Mummy?’

Alexandra too was feeling uncomfortable. This was not a peaceful resting place, like some she had visited. In spite of the fine day it was dark and chilly under the tall trees where rooks cawed. The graveyard was full of rustlings as the wind passed through the high branches and shook the stands of yew and ibex. White dandelion clocks floated in the unkempt grass.

‘Remember what Daddy told you? In those days, that was Victorian England, the people who lived here were very poor, they didn’t have warm houses and good food. They worked long hours in the mills. Remember when Juliet told you about Wuthering Heights? How cold it gets in winter? People got sick, children died, babies died.’

‘Come on, let’s go look at the museum,’ said Juliet, taking Caroline’s other hand. ‘I bet you’d like to see the room where those sisters used to write their stories, wouldn’t you? And the kitchen where they sat by the fire on winter evenings when the wind was wuthering and shaking the window panes.’

She gave a scary ‘whoo’ and Caroline’s anxious frown was replaced by a tentative smile.

‘Whoo,’ she echoed and gave a little skip, swinging her arms between the two women.

Oliver brought up the rear.

The Parsonage. the Bronte Society brochure, cover

The parsonage reminded Caroline of Juliet and Alan’s house, it had the same big windows with twelve panes of glass exactly the same size surrounded by white painted frames. It stood on a small rise, with grass and flower beds sloping down from the foundations into a flat garden planted with shrubs and flowers.

‘See these?’ said Juliet. ‘They’re called Canterbury bells. And these are hosta. They’re all plants you could find when the Brontës lived here.’

‘That was when Victoria was the Queen?’

‘That’s right.’

They climbed the steps and passed into the hallway. The furniture was old and the walls were hung with dark oil paintings. A grandfather clock ticked. A curved staircase with a polished wooden banister rose to the upper floor.

The first room they visited was Reverend Brontë’s study.

‘Patrick Brontë came to work here as curate in 1820.’ Oliver took over as guide, pointing to a desk covered in books and papers. ‘So, Princess Whatwhyhow, how many years ago was that?’

Caroline’s lips moved silently.

‘Quite a lot,’ she said, eventually.

‘Good answer,’ said Oliver.

‘Patrick was a good man in many ways,’ said Juliet, ‘He did a lot of things for the village, worked hard for the people of his parish, set up a Sunday school, tried to improve their standard of living and health care.’

‘Was he a saint?’

‘Well I suppose some people called him that. But it was hard on his children. Because he had a lot of work, they were usually left to their own devices. Which was lonely for them, but lucky for us, because this house is where the sisters wrote their books. Maybe, if they’d lived in a big city with lots to do and people to visit, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights would never have seen the light of day.’

In the dining room stood the table where the three sisters sat to write.

‘Charlotte and Emily were the famous ones, but Anne wrote two fine books as well. They were all talented. They used to sit here and work together, then walk round the table reading out what they’d written that day.’

‘They really loved each other, didn’t they?’

‘They did. And their brother too, in spite of his problems. He was a talented artist and a poet. We’re going to see some of his paintings.’

Juliet decided to omit the part of the story where three of the siblings had died in quick succession, Branwell and Anne in 1848, Emily in 1849. Nor was she going to recount the sad reminiscences of Tabby, their faithful servant, describing how, after the other three were dead and buried, she used to listen with an aching heart to the footsteps of Charlotte in the room above, ‘walking, walking on alone’.

‘Right. The kitchen.’

Juliet ushered Caroline towards the door. Alexandra paused in front of a sofa that stood against one wall.

Oliver came across to stand behind her.

‘This is where she died, Emily. According to Charlotte. She’d been having pains in her chest for several weeks but wouldn’t see the doctor.’

She turned to look at him.

‘How old was she?’

‘Thirty. Only a few years younger than Mum.’ He shook his head. ‘Charlotte was devastated. She wrote ‘moments so dark as these I have never known’. She’s my favourite one of the sisters, Emily.’

‘Because she died so tragically?’

‘Huh, there was no shortage of tragic deaths. But she was the most solitary of all of the children, shy, didn’t get on easily with people though apparently she was very kind-hearted. She was a creature of the moors. There are stories about how she could talk to animals, she used to bring them home, rabbits, birds, tend to their injuries. Like a vet. She reminds me a bit of our Cath, she used to be out of doors all the time when she was younger, we both did. Mum and Dad named her after Catherine, in Wuthering Heights, did you know that? Along with hundreds of other parents round here. Lots of Cathys in Yorkshire.’

He smiled.

nothing like a good book

‘I’ve got a copy of Emily’s poems back at the house if you want to read them?’

‘I’d like that. It’s a while since I’ve read any poetry. I used to be quite a fan. Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats.’


He hesitated, then began to recite, his voice little more than a whisper:

“…I am not doomed to wear

Year after year in gloom and desolate despair;

A messenger of Hope comes every night to me,

And offers, for short life, eternal liberty.


He comes with western winds, with evening’s wandering airs,

With that clear dusk of heaven that brings the thickest stars;

Winds take a pensive tone, and stars a tender fire,

And visions rise and change which kill me with desire.’

He stopped, flushed, gave an embarrassed shrug.

‘She called that one The Prisoner.’

‘The Prisoner?’

‘Yes…are you OK?’

Alexandra had gone deathly pale. She stared at Oliver. In the dimness of the room his eyes were a blazing blue. His jaw was shadowed by stubble, his curly hair sprang up from his head in darkly gleaming spirals. His face could have adorned a Renaissance painting, an angel bending over the manger, a nobleman hunting with his hawk in the Tuscan hills.

As though in a dream, she reached up and gently touched his cheek. The contact lasted less than a second, then she turned abruptly and left the room.

Oliver stood quite still.

Juliet and Caroline were in the kitchen. Caroline was frowning at the table where Emily used to bake at the same time as she studied her German lessons and made notes for her poems. She decided when she got back to school she was going to learn lots of foreign languages and write poetry.

Tree near Top Withens

‘Over here there used to be a window,’ said Oliver, coming up behind her and pointing. ‘It’s blocked up now, but you could look out of it, across the moors. Imagine what it was like on a winter’s night, everything outdoors covered in snow, the fire crackling in the hearth, Emily making bread, Tabby telling stories.’

‘Did they have a cat?’

‘Ah,’ said Juliet, looking helplessly at her son. ‘I’m sure they did. Maybe Alan knows, lovey, we’ll ask him when we get back.’

Caroline’s favourite room was the children’s study where they played when they were little. Branwell had a box of toy soldiers that looked like old-fashioned pegs painted red, blue and black. The four children used to make up fantastical stories about them, inventing an imaginary kingdom called Angria where the Duke of Wellington was the hero, fighting wars with different enemies. He and other characters had lots of adventures which the children wrote about in tiny books, using even tinier writing which needed a magnifying glass to read. It must have been nice to have sisters and a brother. But Teresa Knowles had three sisters and two brothers and they were always fighting with one another and getting punished by Mrs Knowles who sometimes ran after them with a rolling pin.

She was still thinking about brothers and sisters later that day. Picking up her pen she began to write in her notebook:

‘Today we visited the Bronte Museum. It is in the old Parsnidge next to the graveyard. There are a lot of babies and other children buried in the churchyard. It was the Victorian age. You could die at any moment. The toilet was outside and you had to queue even if it was snowing. The best thing was the childrens notebooks. Aunt Juliet bought me a postcard of the Bronte sisters in the museum shop like the picture that you showed me. It was painted by Branwell he was not just a drunkerd but also a nice person. Everybody had a lot of brothers and sisters in those days. If I had a brother I would like him to be the same as Oliver. Arnie is a very nice baby but we haven’t seen him this week. On Sunday Frank was cruel to him and pulled his arm and made him cry. Cath has promised to come over and put some desperate damson on my nails. She has rings on all her fingers even her thumb and in her nose and ears and is pretty. I would quite like her for a sister. The problem with having a brother and sister is they could get a disease and die at any minute. Perhaps it is better just to have a dog or a cat. I am really missing Rusty. Thank you for getting me this notebook Daddy.’

The Passage of Desire


Other blogs of mine relating to the Brontës can be found in the archives: March 2015, April 2016, January 2018 and July 2018.

Also on the same subject, check out author Helena Fairfax’s  November 21 blog,  which links to another blog 😉  by Annika Perry. Let’s hear it for the Brontës and their fans!

Here’s a video  (in spite of lots of background ‘wuthering’ at the beginning, all adds to the atmosphere !by LucyTheReader, showing the moors, the churchyard and the museum. 


Have a great reading weekend!



Miss Anne Lister and Mrs Helena Whitbread: a marriage of two minds

Anne Lister Portrait by Joshua Horner – GLBTQ Encyclopedia http://www.glbtq.com/images/entries/literature/lister_anne.jpg, Wikipedia.org Public Domain

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.

Shibden Hall Richard Buck / Shibden Hall / CC BY-SA 2.0 geograph.org_.uk_-_1804046.jpg

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.’

Country Lane, West Yorkshire

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.’***

Haworth station. Alight here for a visit to The Brontë Museum…

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.

Books by Helena Whitbread

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.

The Piece Hall, Halifax, where Anne saw a balloon ascent in 1824 , an event attended by ‘some said…50 thousand’

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.

Les deux Amies

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.’

‘Illustration for The Purloined Letter, Edgar Allen Poe. By Frédéric Théodore Lix – “Модный магазин” (Fashion magazine), 1864, №23 (December), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org

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.

Since April you can see the code and read Anne’s diaries for yourselves on-line at the West Yorkshire Archives. Amazing…

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 





From Halifax to Tuscany: The Piece Hall


The Piece Hall, Halifax: part of the 66 000 foot square piazza

In the September blog, “The Passage of Desire, behind every title a story, Part 1”, I talked about the book’s French connexion. While Part 2 is gently marinating, I’d like to share a bit of history about Halifax, the Yorkshire town where I was born, which lies 8 miles away from Haworth, the principal setting for the novella.

August 1st this year (Yorkshire Day) marked another Halifax ‘birth’, this one (unlike mine) accompanied by great fanfare and media attention: the newly-restored Piece Hall was at last revealed to the public. The Historic England website describes it as a Grade 1 listed building of ‘dramatic design’, a ‘rare surviving example’ of its kind, drawing particular attention to ‘the scale and architectural grandeur of this monumental cloth hall…’

North Entrance. Big.

We were on a visit to the UK, so went to see what all the fuss was about and found ourselves having a ‘back of the wardrobe’ experience. Stepping out of an ordinary street in a northern town, we emerged in Renaissance Italy. On the other side of  the immense North Gate, a dramatic vista opened up, a 66, 000 square foot piazza, enclosed by two- and three- tier arcaded galleries in glowing honey-coloured sandstone. To the east, a perfectly Tuscan, curly-treed hill rose in the background, pierced by the dark Gothic spire of the Square Church. In the cafes spilling out on to the gleaming flagstones, shoppers and tourists sipped their coffee whilst admiring the play of light and shade.

The surrounding moorland is still dotted with sheep, those hardy creatures on whose fleecy back the wealth of the region reposed from medieval times to the Industrial Revolution. Wool became big business: today in the House of Lords, the Lord Speaker still sits on ‘the woolsack’, symbolising the importance of the commodity at that time.  In the mid-18th century,  cloth making was the biggest trade of three West Riding towns-Halifax, Huddersfield and Bradford. It was a cottage industry, with spinners and weavers working at home on handlooms, then taking the ‘pieces’ – 30 yards of woven cloth – across the moors, often by packhorse, to markets or cloth halls.

In 1774 a group of wealthy manufactures in Halifax met to discuss the creation of a new hall, a monument that would not only honour their flourishing commerce but also pay homage to Britain’s cultural and artistic heritage. They may have worn flat caps and talked with a funny accent, but those northerners appreciated a fine painting and could join in with the Hallelujah chorus with the best of them.

Shades of Tuscany in West Yorkshire

And so, on January 1st 1779, with much pomp, ceremony and a firework display engineered by the famous Signor Pietro and a clever pigeon*, the original Halifax Piece Hall opened its doors. Trading started the following day and, in the intimacy of its 315 small rooms, buyers and sellers could negotiate deals, inspired by the view through the elegant colonnades across the grand central court with its neoclassical architecture.

A century later, in 1871, the hall got a magnificent set of ornate iron doors, weighing 5 tonnes, which have also been restored. Their elaborately-worked panels show the town’s coat of arms, featuring the head of John the Baptist and the inscription ‘Halig Feax’, meaning Holy Hair, which gave the town its name. According to some historians, John’s head (which you will remember was removed on the orders of Salome, she of the 7 veils) somehow found its way to Halifax and is buried in the area. (We shall choose to ignore experts preferring a more prosaic explanation.) Above John’s head is the agnus dei,  the lamb of God, tipping a wink at its brothers and sisters on the nearby hills, and among the different floral decorations are blooms which surely must depict the white roses of Yorkshire…

Gate detail: head of John the Baptist

A final footnote: the hall had a long and varied history, finding itself about to hit the scrap heap in the early seventies. It was saved by one man, Councillor Keith Ambler, whose impassioned plea to preserve such an important piece of history finally carried the day. Chapeau, Mr Ambler. More fascinating details can be found on: