Arts & Entertainment
4 min

What I learned from chasing Anne Lister’s diary

A lesbian pilgrimage in West Yorkshire

A Portrait of Anne Lister in Shibden Hall. Credit: Lydia Perovic

“I remember this. She says here she didn’t like being womanized by her lover.”

Helena Whitbread and I are in the archives of the Halifax, West Yorkshire, England’s city library, leisurely leafing through Anne Lister’s coded journals from 1814-1826, the oldest surviving written testimony of explicit lesbian sexuality. What did Lister mean by the word? “She didn’t want to be in the receiving position. My lesbian daughter explained this to me back when I was decoding. ‘Mom,’ she said, ‘it’s somebody who doesn’t take her trousers off. A stone butch, we call it today.’” Conversations like these are not unusual on the top floor of this small municipal library in West Yorkshire. The now permanent home of the journals — and Lister’s former manor, Shibden Hall, a few miles down into the valley — has become a veritable place of pilgrimage for the scholars, writers, filmmakers and queers of all stripes ever since Whitbread decoded and published the diaries in the late 1980s.

Lister is now a vibrant cultural mini-industry, but the diaries survived to reach our time due to several strokes of extraordinary luck. Lister herself did not have a chance to destroy them; she died suddenly during a trip through Russia. The books stayed at Shibden Hall as it changed hands, without being disturbed for 60 years, until 1887, when the last remaining Lister to occupy the manor decided to decode and publish a few excerpts in a local paper. He dropped the idea as soon as he grasped the meaning of some of the passages, but decided against burning the books. He hid them behind a panel at Shibden Hall, where they stayed until the estate turned to the Halifax municipal authority in 1930s.

The ensuing years could be best described as something of an omertà period for the journals: a handful of scholars and local officials knew about its contents, but preferred not to research, write or publicly speak on the topic. Helena Whitbread herself was not aware of what lied in wait when she decided to take on a research project focusing on Lister. Just out of university, to which this mother of four returned to as an adult, and eager to absorb herself in a long-term project, Whitbread was looking at some of Lister’s documents on microfilm when the librarian asked her if she knew that Lister had kept a diary. Whitbread did not. That day, she returned home with the photocopies of the first fifty pages of the dense, cryptic handwriting and the key to the code. The rest, as they say, is cultural history.

It took five years of work, but most of all, it took a bold researcher without any qualm or prejudice and a singular focus. Working in the honourable tradition of independent scholarship, Whitbread took on the project because she judged it historically important; she dedicated the required time while holding down a part-time teaching job in secondary education. (Researchers in the academe need to be more career-minded, and dedicate their time and research topics with an eye toward institutional advancement. This may be the reason why it wasn’t a university-appointed academic who uncovered the diaries to the world.) Whitbread is now working on the Lister biography. Despite the growing cultural chatter on Lister, a comprehensive biography has yet to be published.

I first heard of Helena Whitbread at the Q&A after the Inside Out Film Festival screening of The Secret Diaries of Anne Lister in 2011. The actress who played Lister, Maxine Peake, spoke about Whitbread as her main source of Lister wisdom and recommended her books. When I finally met Whitbread in Halifax earlier this year — for I have also decided to make the pilgrimage — she had the day planned out and a designated friend driver for us. Visits from Lister-curious writers from around the world are not infrequent for Whitbread, but she is generous with her time and knowledge.

After the archives, our next stop is Shibden Hall, a Tudor-like, thatched and panelled mansion that Lister inherited and ran after the death of her aunt and uncle. Whitbread knows every room and every staff person of the heritage site by name. Lister’s period piano is still in what used to be her music room. It’s hard not to think of the coded parts of the diary while walking through the bedrooms —Lister’s sexual confidence, her power of naming and articulation, the total absence of shame. How could she have found the words, I wonder. Whitbread suggests some of the classics that Lister had read might have helped. There is some recent scholarship looking at whether the writers of the Greek and Roman antiquity might have aided the consciousness raising.

And what if the conditions that made such life possible — a woman of independent means gets just the right kind of education and experience that allows for the articulation of the unashamed “fairer-sex” desire and its satisfaction — produced more than just one case? How many other diaries by other heiresses might have existed? This is the era when Jane Austen is publishing her books, and the Brontës are just round the corner — but just how much are we still in the dark about the love practises of the times?

Later over the late lunch at the Shibden Mill Inn, the conversation turns wide-ranging and informal. We talk about coming out. Lister never really had to “come out” to anybody, nor give an account of herself — as the future heir of Shibden Hall, she joined her relatives there, leaving the parental home for good in her early 20s. She did as she pleased ever since. Whitbread tells me about her daughter’s coming out as a young person, and when I confide that a similar episode with my own mother never took place (we’re talking small town in the Balkans; things like that are simply not done), she has practical and compassionate advice.

Several anecdotes later, she tells me of the time she was heckled during a public speaking engagement by a group of lesbian separatists. (At which point I am already laughing.) What qualifies you to write about Anne Lister when you yourself aren’t lesbian, was the gist of it. They settled down, she says, after they learned about her daughter, and after she reminded them that the field is open to anybody. Dedicating one’s time to the dogged pursuit of the documents that form queer history is out to one and all.  Let’s get those panels down.