• From Anne’s diary, 9th August 1818 (age 28)

    Mrs Page began talking about my getting married. Told me I had a good figure, good complexion, held myself well & was, she thought, good-tempered. That I should be good-looking if I dressed my hair with bows, as they do now, and with curls, etc. She is a vulgar, good sort of woman, fond of giving her opinions and advice. I took it all well, was amused, led her on & praised her &, I daresay, came off with flying colours.

Helena’s story

Helena WhitbreadHelena Whitbread is an historian and the editor/decoder of the diaries of Anne Lister.

Helena grew up in a relatively impoverished Irish Catholic home in Halifax, West Yorkshire, England. Due to ill health, she dropped out of school at age 13 and never pursued further education until the age of 35 – an interesting story in itself. To read about that, visit her Blog here!

After graduating from university, at the age of 52, Helena began to look for a research project near her home in Halifax. She was familiar with the Shibden Mill estate in her home town, and knew of a few stories about Anne Lister, a woman who had owned the property in the mid-nineteenth century. She was naturally interested in learning more about Anne, and decided to write a short paper about Anne’s letters, preserved in Calderdale Archives.

Her 1983 inquiry into Anne’s letters took a drastically different turn than she anticipated – to read about this life changing moment, read her Blog here.

Helena instead discovered the diaries of Anne Lister, and the “crypthand” code that filled a large amount of the journals. At that time she was completely unaware of the journals’ explosive contents – watch Helena tell this story here! The diaries and their contents had been hidden for over a hundred years. … You can watch Helena describe their history and how she started the painstaking process of decoding them here.

Gradually, by painstakingly decoding each and every word of Anne’s crypthand, Helena discovered the truth of Anne’s lesbian sexuality, as well as Anne’s views on men, money, business, and the society in which she lived. Anne, it turned out, captured in her diaries a journey of self-discovery and self-definition that was previously unheard of for a woman of her time. The word “lesbian” did not exist, therefore she was left to introspect and come to terms with her identity, which she did in a most impressive way. (Check out Helena’s Stories from Shibden Hall to watch her talk about these subjects and more!)

Helena quickly realised that this story was important; it painted a completely different picture than the women in other popular and classic English novels of the time, including Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters. Helena saw Anne for what she was: a revolutionary in her time for women’s roles, appearances and behaviour. Anne was bold, fiercely independent, a landowner, industrialist, traveller – and lesbian. Helena decided to share Anne’s story with the world. Until then, Anne Lister’s lesbianism had been suppressed or hinted at; this was the first time her story had been told.

By publishing the first volume of Anne’s journals in 1988, then entitled I Know My Own Heart (now out of print), Helena Whitbread made lesbian history. Such detailed and candid expression of lesbian love and sex that took place 200 years ago was an absolute revelation.

In 1993, Helena published a second volume of Anne Lister’s diaries, No Priest But Love, which covers Anne Lister’s life from 1824-1826. This book boldly includes more revelations of Anne’s romantic and sexual intrigues than the first.

In her final book, The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, Helena covers Anne Lister’s life from 1816-1824.

Helena is currently working on Anne Lister’s biography.

The lesbian world owes a great deal to Helena Whitbread for her ongoing committed study of the life and diaries of Anne Lister.