• From Anne’s diary, Friday 10th August 1832 (age 42)

    [The first time that Anne Lister put her thoughts in writing about the possibility of courting Ann Walker, the young heiress who lived at Lidgate in the neighbourhood of Shibden.]

    ‘… Thought I, as I have several times done of late, shall I try & make up to her?’

  • From Anne’s diary, Sunday 5th January 1834 (age 43)

    [After eighteen months of an on-and-off courtship, Anne was unsure about whether or not there could be a permanent relationship between them.]

    ‘…Miss W[alker] talks as if she would be glad to take me – then if I say anything decisive she hesitates to. I tell her it is all her money which is in the way. The fact is, she is as she was before [i.e. indecisive], but determined to get away from the Sutherlands and feels the want of me. But [I need to] take someone with more mind and less money. Steph [Belcombe – i.e. Mariana’s brother] is right: she would be a great pother [sic]. [I] have nothing serious to say to her – she wants better manning than I can manage.’

    [See also Jill Liddington’s Female Fortune. Rivers Oram Press. 1998. p.85.]

My road to discovering Anne Lister: Fateful Encounter #1

There are certain days in a person’s life which can mark a change so dramatic that life is never quite the same again. Such a change happened to me in 1983, the day I walked into the archive department of the library in my home town of Halifax, in West Yorkshire.

For almost 200 years, the town had concealed a secret which was privy to a select group of people only. On that day I little realised I was about to discover the nature of that secret. Today, over 35 years later, “the murder is out”, as Anne would say.

The circumstances leading up to that fateful day can be traced back to two strange coincidences, many years apart but equally – shall I say – serendipitous. Each involved a young man, both of whom I had never seen before and have never seen since.

I left school at the age of 13 due to ill-health and had no educational qualifications, so as an adult my options were limited in finding work. This led to me, at the age of 35, married with four children and working as a barmaid at my local pub. However, I was an avid reader.

On one particular evening at the pub, I overheard a young student telling his friends that he was reading A Doll’s House by Chekhov. Without thinking, I murmured “Don’t you mean Ibsen?” The young man bristled at my correction and demanded to know how a barmaid would know about such things.

The following evening, the same young man returned and said he owed me an apology and a pint. He had realized I was correct, but asked me how I was familiar with the play. I told him I had read all the works of Chekhov and Ibsen. He asked me why, with such literary tastes, was I working as a barmaid?  I told him that I wasn’t clever and had had very little education. He assured me, if I was reading Norwegian and Russian playwrights, that I was certainly clever.

“Get up to the Technical College and finish your education,” he admonished me.

I took his advice. I spent three years in part-time study to gain sufficient qualifications to enter university, and then attended university where I graduated with a degree in politics and literature.

That brings us to the year 1983. I was 52 years old and in search of a post graduate research project. I had no idea that I was about to step into the world of a woman who lived in my home town over 200 years ago, and whose secret I was about to discover.

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35 Comments

  1. MARY WRIGHT
    Posted May 14, 2019 at 7:54 am | Permalink

    Thank you for uncovering Anne Lister and revealing her to the world. Imagine knowing such a woman, in any era. You have done a great work to help in resurrecting her for I feel watching, Gentleman Jack, as if I know her, currently. Therefore, I am in your debt!
    Much appreciation for your work!!
    Mary

    • Posted May 17, 2019 at 4:06 am | Permalink

      Thank you for your appreciative comments, Mary. Anne Lister is indeed a fascinating woman. Her diaries have kept me enthralled for many years now.

  2. Michelle Lavigne
    Posted May 17, 2019 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    Good morning Helena
    Like your day of discovery in 1983 when you started on the adventure which is Anne Listers’ diary, I as just turning 52 years old am starting my quest to learn everything about this amazing woman. I long to learn more.
    As part of my research I’ve been searching everywhere to find copies of your books that I can purchase. Can you please help me to get these books?
    I’m very excited about all this. Any help would be greatly appreciated.
    Thank you for sharing Anne’s story with the world
    Warm regards
    Michelle (Shelly) Lavigne

    • R V Whiteley
      Posted July 7, 2019 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

      Helena, I am the secretary of the Albany Club Clare Road, Halifax which was formerly Hope Hall, residence of Christopher Rawson. According to a booklet we have from Antiquarian Society, Anne Lister visited Hope Hall on several occasions. I don’t know if this is of any interest to you.

      • Victoria
        Posted July 31, 2019 at 11:06 am | Permalink

        Dear Elena! I am from Russia.. Thank you very much for Your work, for this truly amazing story that You told the world. This great miracle. We might never have known about Anne Lister. I don’t know English, but I really want to read your great work. I’ll learn English. that’s the way Ann Lister makes me better educated. I admire this woman! Our world never ceases to amaze!
        С уважением, Виктория!

  3. Posted May 19, 2019 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    Hello, Michelle – I am so pleased that you are finding Anne Lister as irresistible as I did when I first came across her diaries in 1983. My book, The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (published by Virago Press) will be available on Amazon by June 4th – but it could be available now in bookshops such as Waterstones. My second book, No Priest But Love. is available on Kindle (also published by Virago). The book entitled Secret Diaries Past & Present by myself and Natasha Holme is available from Amazon. I hope you enjoy your literary journey into the 19th c. world of Anne Lister. Best wishes, Helena.

  4. Emma Winegardner
    Posted May 19, 2019 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

    Hello! Thank you so much for your wonderful work on Anne Lister. I’ve just finished reading your excellent The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, and like other commenters, I’ve been wanting to read more. Do you ever plan to publish the entireties of your transcriptions in a complete collection?
    All the best,
    Emma Winegardner

    • Posted May 19, 2019 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

      Hello, Emma – so good to know that you are enjoying the Anne Lister diaries. At the moment, there isn’t a full transcript of all the coded entries – but Sally Wainwright, helped with funding from the Wellcome Trust, is arranging for a full digitisation of the whole of Anne’s diaries. It will take some years to complete, however – but meanwhile, my second book No Priest But Love, is available – published on Kindle by Virago.

      • Leigh
        Posted June 18, 2019 at 11:14 pm | Permalink

        Dear Helena

        Like the others who have commented, I am completely enthralled by Anne Lister, in fact somewhat obsessed! I am in awe of the work that you have put into transcribing/translating the diaries and editing them into such fascinating books. I am very much looking forward to the biography. Do you think you’ll ever publish books with Anne’s diaries pre-1817 or post-1826? I’m just dying to read more of her story.

        With warmest wishes

        Leigh

        • Posted June 23, 2019 at 11:02 am | Permalink

          Hello, Leigh – yes, at present I am in the process of completing Volume One of a biography of Anne Lister which begins with her family history, her birth, childhood and young (pre-1817) adulthood. Hopefully, if I get a publisher, it will become available – perhaps next year.

          • Posted July 1, 2019 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

            That’s great news, Helena, thanks for letting me know. I’m sure you’ll have no problem getting a publisher.

  5. Ro Bell
    Posted May 25, 2019 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

    Dear Helena,

    what an inspiring woman you are, and thank you for giving back to the world this amazing queer woman. I remember visiting Shibden Hall when I lived in Leeds and studied in Ilkley, I had just come out – and was devouring any echoes or positive stories of other queer folks.

    I wish that our paths had crossed when I was at Ilkley – part of my undergraduate degree was gender studies with Judy Worsnop and her partner Anne. They would have adored Anne Lister.

    Stay well and enjoy all that you do.

    yours aye

    Ro

    R K Bell

  6. Posted May 26, 2019 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    Dear Ro. Thank you for taking the time out to let me know how much the work on Anne Lister means to you. I hope you are enjoying the Gentleman Jack series which is now showing (2nd episode tonight at 9 p.m. on BBC1). Anne Lister was certainly an exceptional woman.

  7. Mark Sutcliffe
    Posted May 28, 2019 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    Dear Helena,

    As as Child I played in Shibden Park and Visited the “a’ll”….however what I did not know was the real story of “Anne Lister” I read and noted the Name on Visits ….but it was not until some 40 years later AND 7 Children later, that or third son came home and siad “Started Work on Gentleman Jack”…..”oh” says “i” ….”and where is that taking you filming?”….Not far says Son…….”Shibden Hall”….and the story began…..

    I sent him a message on Sunday evening “Great Loving it”…..however he is just filming the story that you have brought to our homes……and for that – “I cannot thank you enough” …..

    If you ever venture to Elland …..Tea is always available…..

    Thanks Mark

  8. Posted May 29, 2019 at 4:17 am | Permalink

    when I first saw the commercial for gentleman Jack on each PO it caught my eye now I’m addicted I’m so happy that I found this series she’s an amazing character and I’m going to get the book on June 4 I watch each episode twice the story the costumes ,the Decor so authentic U have just brought me back to that time I love top hats ,I collect them and always go to the steam punk convention here in New York ,what an amazing find you brought us ,so funny how you come across something and takes over your life I am a Reverend and Marry brides every weekend I hope that she finds true love , can’t wait for the next episode ,you have my email , if you decide to write anymore about her or another book please let me know thank you so much for bringing her to life

    • Posted June 23, 2019 at 10:21 am | Permalink

      Thank you for your appreciative comments, Francine. I am just completing Volume One of a biography of Anne Lister so, hopefully, there should be a publisher willing to get it into print.

  9. Linda Wedderburn
    Posted May 29, 2019 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

    Hello Helena, I was a young History teacher at NHHS in 1986-7 and remember you telling me about your work. I was so impressed I bought a copy of “I know my own heart”. I really enjoyed reading it and am now thrilled all your work has resulted in this fine TV adaptation and you being so acknowledged for all you did. I am privileged to have talked to you about it. Well done indeed.

    Linda (formerly) Scott

    • Posted June 23, 2019 at 10:23 am | Permalink

      Thank you for your nice comments above, Linda. Sally Wainwright’s epic series has certainly brought Anne Lister to the notice of the world!

  10. Sidney Oliver
    Posted June 2, 2019 at 4:08 am | Permalink

    I am a 73-year-old American lesbian feminist. I have spent my life exploring and cherishing my own lesbianism and our history, I can’t tell you how much the Anne Lister history means to me. Women of my generation have often theorized that no such creature as a “lesbian” could have existed absent wealth and status sufficient to live independent of men entirely. I hope I’m not being too obscure. Of course I know we’ve existed throughout human history, but there wasn’t a name for us until women like Lister drew the figure, The TV series is my first introduction. I’ve been rivetted to it since I discovered it. I am deeply grateful for the sensitive portrayal of Lister’s sex life. It could so easily have been sensationalied. I thank Suranne Jones. Sally Wainwright, and you for making that possible as well as for painting a fully actualized woman remarkable for any age. Thank you, thank you. I can’t tell you how deeply moved I am and how much I look forward to reading your work. You are a genius, I hope you know that. A real genius perfect for the challenge of Lister’s diaries, Your courage is a lovely mirror of her own. All my thanks and affection,

    • Posted June 23, 2019 at 10:26 am | Permalink

      Thank you for your appreciative comments, Sidney. Working on the journals of Anne Lister had been a great privilege for me – and it makes all the work worth while when I read how much pleasure and comfort it brings to people such as yourself.

  11. kate b
    Posted June 3, 2019 at 12:26 am | Permalink

    Hello Helena,

    Thank you for taking your degree and cracking the Lister code, this is a gold mine of information about us in history and I am so grateful for your painstaking research into this incredible woman. Best wishes, kate.

    • Posted June 23, 2019 at 10:28 am | Permalink

      Thank you for taking the time to let me know my work is so appreciated, Kate. I hope you are enjoying the reading and the Gentleman Jack series.

  12. Denise Murphy
    Posted June 4, 2019 at 4:48 am | Permalink

    Thank you for sharing your road to adult education, it is a familiar story that is often forgotten, and now less available.

    My question is about Truth. Starting with my stone mason convict ancestor from Halifax, I’ve tried always to be truthful about the facts as I have found them. But with one ancestor, the story was just so appalling and shocking (as a victim of violence and circumstance), that I have been reluctant to share this with the family.

    In your work as an Historian, have you ever faced such a conflict, and if so and if you can say, how did you deal with it?

    My best wishes to you Ms Whitbread.
    Denise
    (Perth, Western Australia)

    • Posted June 23, 2019 at 10:56 am | Permalink

      Hello, Denise – I think that every historian who has uncovered some unpalatable information about their subject finds themselves in a moral dilemma as to whether or not it is ethical to make those facts known. I have encountered this situation a number of times during my work on Anne Lister and eventually decided on two things. The first is that if if there is no one still alive who can be hurt by the revelations, then it is o.k. to go ahead. The second is – I am a strong believer in using/writing history as a way in which people in the present era can draw on the experiences of people from the past. In that way, we recognise in their humanity the dilemmas of our own and can draw from their experiences. I may not be expressing this very well – it is a difficult subject to tackle and depends very much on the individual viewpoint of the historian concerned. There are books on historiography, such as The Uses and Abuses of History by Margaret MacMillan which might be of some use to you – but basically, if you can use your own moral judgement i.e to uncover your ancestor’s crime without harm to anyone in the present day, then I can only pass on what another historian said to me once – that ‘History is fair game.’

  13. Cindy
    Posted June 10, 2019 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    Dear Helena

    I can’t Thank you enough for bringing this remarkable woman to Life. These last few months I have been absorbed into Ann Listers world and I can’t seem to get enough of her and her fascinating life. She truly was ahead of her time and I identify her as a visionary. I have been enjoying watching The HBO show Gentlemen Jack. The quote that struck me, was when she was on the bed taking with her aunt, and she described herself as having a Bold personality, trapped in this vessel. That just hit home with me, and I was hooked. Keep up the wonderful work you are doing. I look forward to many more years of your discoveries of our wonderful Ms Anne Lister.
    Sincerely, Cindy R.

    • Posted June 23, 2019 at 10:58 am | Permalink

      Thank you for your appreciative comments, Cindy. I am pleased that you are getting so much pleasure from the Anne Lister oeuvre. There is certainly much more to come.

  14. Diana Doherty
    Posted June 14, 2019 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    Hi Helena,Ann Lister has changed my life reading about her life,what a fanstastic woman.I am going through all the books about her,i cant get enough of her,i feel she is with me when i read her diares.I am gay but i spent all my life living whay people say you should live.I have had lesbion relationships in the past.But i have never been a frilly lady i love black allways have.But family and friends say to me brightened yourself up,and i listened to them.But my daughter who knows about me and excepts it and my family do.My daughter has allways told me be who you want to be not what people exspect me to be.But Ann Lister has changed my life around i now do what i want not what people exspect me to be like.I wear black all the time now like i allways wanted.I love my life now and i feel i am me once more.I an 69 but a very young one enjoys all sport etc.So i thank you and Ann Lister for getting my life back x.Anne is allways with me now and i cant stop reading about her and i love the TvPrograme.She is my Hero and such a wonderful lady didnt care a dam what people thought of her she did what she wanted.And now life is like that now woman do all sorts of jobs now . Thank you again for bringing her to us love her.I hope to visit Halifax sometime this year.I live in South Wales a lot of traveling but she is worth it !!

  15. Posted June 15, 2019 at 1:48 am | Permalink

    As a lesbian college student, seeing these works has definitely changed me. I was wondering how much of the diary you’ve recovered and what research you’ve done about it. I’m studying English so this stuff is right up my alley in terms of personal and scholarly interests! Thank you for sharing something a lot of us have connected with.

  16. Posted June 15, 2019 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    I write for ‘Down Your Way’ magazine and have followed your blog with fascination – partly because I too went back to studying aged 40 something, and also because Shibden Hall has been one of my favourite places to visit. My magazine feature is a monthly interview with a Yorkshire based person and I wonder (with fingers crossed) whether you would have the time to talk to me for about an hour about your fascinating life and how it has turned out.

  17. Posted June 23, 2019 at 12:24 am | Permalink

    Thank you thank you. I’m so delighted that you are having one heck of a red hot moment. Am so excited to order and read your published lister books.

  18. Alan Mcdermott-Roe
    Posted July 11, 2019 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

    Have you thought of breaking down the remaining pages into smaller parts or sections and letting people on the web decode and check sections of code? With 50 or 100 people it would not take that long to complete?

    Its really fantastic thinking we now know the most intermate thoughts of Anne who lived so many years ago really great work.

    Alan McDermott-Roe

    • Posted July 11, 2019 at 11:17 pm | Permalink

      Hi Alan, I like your idea. However, Helena has already decoded every word of Anne Lister’s diaries over the decades she’s been working on them.

  19. Monica Campbell
    Posted July 20, 2019 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

    Bravo for your inquisitive and courageous work. Anne Lister and yourself will continue in our Lesbian History. Many thanks, listening to her story in your voice on the internet adds power and grace. You have already influnenced other stories to emerg as you have gone viral. Monica

  20. Lynn Shouls
    Posted July 26, 2019 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    Dear Helena
    I have just finished reading The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister. Thanks are not enough to reflect the enormous decades-long contribution you have made in giving us a window onto the character, and life and times, of the extraordinary Anne Lister. Your “Diaries” extracts were such a pleasure to read, and some small “asides” were a delight, for instance the arrival of two hedgehogs in a straw-filled box by coach from Market Weighton, and the order of “two blue cats” from Norway. I see in these the humour of both Anne and you. Thank you.

  21. Mary Wilson (Hayes)
    Posted July 27, 2019 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    Dear Helena,

    Not sure if you remember me and if you are still living close by me in Victoria Rd.
    Have often wondered about you and how you are. Seeing Gentleman Jack reminded me of how hard you worked on those diaries, every spare moment you had if a free period arose at school, not to mention all those hours of hard work at home. I felt very angry and sad to see that there was no mention of you in the credits…….. Did they not realise that there would have been no “Gentleman Jack” without you??!
    Today I have a visitor from a friend and colleague from our teaching days, and Jaquie and all of her friends are thinking along the same lines.
    It would be lovely to meet up some time.

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