• 10th Nov 1818

    Ellen [Empson] & I had a long confab. Told her I was often in low spirits & she owned I had some reason – my father’s managing his estate so ill & living in that quere [sic] sort of way at Weighton. I said I often wanted a companion – someone to take care of me & now she was gone there was nobody I cared about. Said she, very innocently, “Why did you let me marry?” “What could I do? You never asked me.” “That is true enough. I never asked anybody.” She seemed to feel a great deal interested about me – said I was odd but hoped I would not change.

Two lesbian diarists in two different eras

What would two women, separated by two hundred years, both writing their diaries in a secret code, have in common?

As readers of my blog and my books will know, I have been working on the four-million-word Anne Lister journals for over thirty years and had been confident that it was a unique document in the history of personal diary-keeping, not just because parts of it were written in a secret code of Anne’s own devising, but because she was a lover of women and, living as she did in the Georgian era, she had to be careful to conceal her sexual life in the secrecy of an esoteric code—her ‘crypthand,’ as she called it.

Imagine my surprise when I found out, in 2011, that a present-day lesbian, from her teenage years (she is now in her late forties) had been writing a diary in her own secret code for exactly the same reason as Anne’s—concealment of her sexuality.

I immediately got in touch with her and almost from our first meeting the idea of a ‘Compare and Contrast’ exercise took root. A  literary exploration of the comparisons and the contrasts between the two diarists, writing in very different eras, can be found in the recently published book entitled Secret Diaries Past & Present: Q & A with Helena Whitbread & Natasha Holme.

Have you ever recorded any of your private life in code? Let me know in the comments!

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