• 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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6 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

  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.

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