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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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 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)
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!