Who was the real #AnneLister? A fascinating talk by experts @HelenaWhitbread and @JillLiddington

helena whitbread, anne lister, jill liddington

If it weren’t for the work of Helena Whitbread and Jill Liddington, no one today would have heard of Anne Lister, an extraordinary woman who kept a diary at her home in Shibden Hall, Halifax, in the first half of the nineteenth century. Today, thanks to Helena Whitbread’s years of transcribing and decoding in the 1980s, Anne Lister’s diaries are registered in UNESCO’s Memory of the World archives, and, thanks also to Sally Wainwright’s BBC series Gentleman Jack, Anne is known around the world.

anne lister, shibden hall, gentleman jack
The grounds of Shibden Hall, Halifax

I watched Gentleman Jack avidly. I read Helena Whitbread’s 1988 I Know My Own Heart, now released as The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, and her 1993 No Priest But Love, which will be re-released next year as the second volume of the diaries.

I also read Jill Liddington’s books about Anne, Nature’s Domain and Female Fortune. (The latter was chosen by Sally Wainwright as the book she’d take to her desert island in her Desert Island Discs in 2014.)

This week I was lucky enough to attend a talk by both Helena Whitbread and Jill Liddington inside the wonderful Halifax Minster, where Anne Lister was baptised, worshipped and was buried.

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Inside Halifax Minster

I thoroughly enjoyed Gentleman Jack, but for some reason the Anne Lister portrayed was not like the one I imagined. I was very curious to know how Helena Whitbread and Jill Liddington felt about the portrayal. They each spoke for a fascinating twenty minutes.

Helena Whitbread began by giving this quote from Anne’s diaries, from 26th January 1830, when she was 39:

I said to myself as I came in this evening, I am as it were neither man nor woman in this society. How shall I manage?

The TV series gives a positive image of Anne. She is masculine and she seems in the main to be in control. Helena Whitbread stated that, in her earlier years, Anne had a lighthearted approach to her sexuality. Then, in 1816, the love of her life, Marianne Belcombe, married. The whole episode was intensely and almost unbearably painful for Anne. She attended Marianne’s wedding, but not only that, she also accompanied the couple on their honeymoon, seeing Marianne and her husband off to bed on their first night. This heartbreaking situation made Anne acutely aware of the limitations society imposed on her.

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The dining room at Shibden Hall

Anne spent six months with Marianne and her new husband. Once back at Shibden Hall, she sought to ease her heartbreak by intense study. HW felt her desire to study arose from a psychological need to validate her existence. Women in those days were excluded from universities, but Anne wanted to be better educated than university men. Without her studies, she felt she was nothing and had no purpose. Jill Liddington later added how Anne was reading the same geology journals as Charles Darwin. She had a brilliant mind and was following cutting edge scientific progress.

HW pointed out how Anne Lister spent many hours contemplating her own nature. I also felt her introspection came across strongly in the diaries.

Anne wrote, ‘I am an enigma, even unto myself.’ Her language in the earlier years is wonderfully romantic. HW explained how she was born in the romantic era, that she loved both Rousseau and Byron, and that the phrase Lady Caroline Lamb used to describe Byron – ‘Mad, bad and dangerous to know‘ – could perhaps equally well apply to Anne Lister.

Although Anne devoted herself to her studies, she claimed to find novels trivial. She also didn’t want to give way to the emotions novels raised in her, after one particular book caused her to remember Marianne, and she cried and cried like a child for days. Music also could make her melancholy.

Flow on, my miserable foolish tears.’ Helena Whitbread’s picture of Anne around the time of her break up from Marianne Belcombe is the one I think of when I think of Anne Lister.

shibden hall, anne lister, gentleman jack
Window at Shibden Hall, looking out on the grounds

However, Jill Liddington went on to speak of Anne in her later years. The Gentleman Jack TV series starts just after Anne’s breakup with Vere Hobart, in 1832. Anne returned to shabby Shibden Hall. JL suggested that at this point Anne had suffered enough heartbreak, and that she closed a door on romance. It was interesting that both speakers thought that after this period, the language Anne used in her diary was less romantic and heartfelt, and more pragmatic.

Anne now became determined to make something of her life – to transform Shibden Hall, to become more politically active (although there were plenty of limitations here) and to be entrepreneurial with the estate (where again, her gender imposed limitations).

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The vicar introducing Helena Whitbread and Jill Liddington in the magnificent Halifax Minster

Here Jill Liddington mentioned another aspect of Anne Lister that was new to me and doesn’t come across in the TV series. Anne was a Protestant and a conservative and had a traditionalist view of the Church of England. It was apt that the talk was given in Halifax Minster. Anne’s aunt, who Anne had a lot of affection for, couldn’t make the journey from Shibden Hall down the steep hill to Halifax. (If you’ve ever been to Halifax, you’ll have seen the beautiful landscape around the town, and the vertigo-inducing hills.) Every Sunday Anne read the morning service for the family, including sermons by the Reverend Samuel Knight, with titles such as ‘The Omniscience of God’.

Anne gave as a gift to Ann Walker a luxuriously bound copy of ‘The Form of Prayers for Christian Families’. She incorporated God and the Church and the spiritual into her way of life, but, as is seen in Gentleman Jack, Ann Walker was not so convinced they were doing the will of God.

helena fairfax, anne lister, struggle and suffrage in halifax
Halifax Minster

At the end of this illuminating talk, Helena Whitbread revealed how Anne Lister’s romantic side – the side she shows in her earlier diaries – was the most important for her, and how wonderful her earlier language was. I completely understand; I find Anne’s earlier diaries moving and so many facets of her brilliant personality are revealed in them. Philosopher, romantic, snobbish, passionate, calculating, fiercely intelligent, and an outcast.

anne lister, halifax minster, gentleman jack
Halifax Minster

As Helena Whitbread said, in all Western literature there is nothing to match Anne Lister’s diaries. We were invited to ask questions. A woman in the audience stood and gave a moving thank you to Helena Whitbread and Jill Liddington for the work they had done bringing Anne to recognition, saying that if they looked at social media, they would see how much difference the diaries had made to how women today saw themselves, and the confidence their work had given women in expressing themselves. It was a touching tribute to these women speakers, and thanks to them, Anne Lister, who died more than 150 years ago, still speaks to us clearly today.

I quote from Helena Whitbread’s transcription of the diaries, and from Jill Liddington, in my book Struggle and Suffrage in Halifax: Women’s Lives and the Fight for Equality. I talk about her schooling, and the fact that at dame school she was ‘whipped every day, except now & then in the holidays, for two years.’ I mention her strength of character and her determination to study, at a time when women were expected to devote themselves to domestic concerns. I mention other aspects of her life as they related to women at the time, such as the way she was sexually harassed in the street, and I give a picture of the milieu Anne lived in in Halifax in the nineteenth century. helena fairfax, anne lister

Helena Whitbread’s transcription of Anne Lister’s earlier diaries, I Know My Own Heart, is now available in this lovely new edition by Virago (Amazon UK link)

helena whitbread, anne lister, helena fairfax


I thoroughly enjoyed this talk by Helena Whitbread and Jill Liddington, and their take on the ‘real’ Anne Lister. Of course we can never know now what she was really like, but her diaries give us a wonderful idea of her complex and brilliant personality.

Have you watched the series Gentleman Jack? Have you read Anne’s diaries? What do you think of them both, and how do you imagine Anne? If you have any comments at all, I’d love to hear from you!

15 thoughts on “Who was the real #AnneLister? A fascinating talk by experts @HelenaWhitbread and @JillLiddington

  1. Helena, a superb article and I’m engrossed throughout. What an amazing setting for the superlative talk, offering deep insight into Anne and her life. I have yet to see Gentleman Jack and will now do so with more knowledge and awareness of her actual life.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I really enjoyed the TV series, Annika. It’s great that the series has brought attention to Anne Lister, and also to the work of Helena Whitbread and Jill Liddington in bringing her to life. Halifax and surroundings have also become popular with visitors, thanks to the show, and especially Shibden Hall. The series has done wonders for West Yorkshire, which is brilliant! Thanks so much for dropping in, and for your lovely comment! x

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I absolutely loved Gentleman Jack and found this blog post fascinating. I’ll definitely be buying the diaries. The talk sounds like something I’d have thoroughly enjoyed, so thanks for sharing, Helena.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Sharon, I’d been looking forward to this talk for ages, and I even missed a day at the RNA conference for it. It was well worth it. Laura Johansen, who organised and hosted the talk, said in this tweet that there will be a podcast to follow for anyone who missed it and would like to hear it https://twitter.com/CulturalLaura/status/1150697715061469184
      I hope you get to catch up with it. The diaries are brilliant. Thanks so much for your great comment, and for dropping in! xx

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Helena, I am the woman who stood and gave that tribute.

    I have been “out” for nearly 50 years, have done my own personal bit in the struggle for acceptance.

    Through that lengthy experience, I can say that Gentleman Jack is no small miracle. But all of this springs from the courageous and wonderful work of Helena, then Jill (and of course (!) Sally Wainwright and Anne Choma), along with many others.

    The astounding result is seen in the social media posts I mentioned, AND the wonderful camaraderie in Halifax this last weekend.

    No matter their sexuality, women are rising, striding confidently forward in the affirmation this all has brought. The inspiration starts in Anne Lister’s diaries. All of those who have carried us to this point—starting with brave Helena—have not only entertained and educated us; they have CHANGED LIVES.

    And THAT is no small legacy to leave behind.

    Blessings on us all.

    Pat Esgate


    Liked by 3 people

    1. Hello Pat, how wonderful to meet you through my blog! Thank you so much for dropping in! Your tribute was eloquent and moving, and brought tears to my eyes, as well as the people around me. I write in my introduction to my book on women’s lives in Halifax how the whole experience of researching these women was an eye-opener, that it’s made me think much more deeply about the countries where women’s voices are still not heard today, how far we still have to go, and how easily everything could be lost. Women’s collective voices on social media are a powerful thing. Thank you so much for raising your own voice in the Minster. You spoke for many of us.
      Thank you again for your comment, and for visiting.


      1. Helena, could not agree more re how easily it could all be lost. We are suffering these inroads in the States right now. I only hope that those who have enjoyed the advantages that came via years of struggle wake up and VOTE.

        Best to you, and may we ALL rise above it. ❤️🙏

        Liked by 1 person

    1. It was a great event, Carol, and I do hope they can make a podcast from it so it can reach a wider audience. There were people there from all around the world. Thanks very much for taking the time to comment xx


    1. I really missed going to the conference, too, Rosemary. It seemed an excellent weekend, from all the posts on social media! I’m meeting up with some RNA friends in a few days and I’m looking forward to hearing all about it. Thanks very much for dropping in – and I hope to see you next year!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Hey, Helena. What a fascinating post. Important to educate people. I truly believe that’s how we can combat discrimination in all it’s forms. It appears to me you Britons are ahead of us in this area. The current US President has told 4 Congresswomen to go back where they came from. All our US citizens. Three of them born here. One naturalized. Sad state of affairs. Please keep on raising people’s consciousness. I’ve shared. :)

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Hello Marsha, we have heard here about Trump’s disgraceful comments. I wish it were true that we could be proud of our own leaders, but I’m afraid at this time it isn’t. I rarely post about politics or comment on it, but we are heading for a very dangerous world.
    I’m glad to have women like you, the other commenters on this post and on social media, and the two women who gave this talk, to stand up for those whose voice has too often been quelled.
    Thank you for sharing this post. Wishing good leadership for both our countries.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks for this blog Helena, you know I share your feelings about Helena Whitbread’s work, I didn’t know about Jill Liddington’s books, will be checking them out. It sounds like a most inspiring event, wish I could have been there!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It was excellent, Laurette, and such a great idea to hold it in the Minster. It was originally planned for the bookshop in the Piece Hall, but tickets sold out immediately. They’d underestimated interest. People had come from all round the world. It was brilliant to see! They are hoping to make a podcast of the talk. I’ll post it on Twitter and FB if I find out the details.
      Thanks very much for dropping in!


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