• 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 #2

The mid-life impulse which led me to invest years in college and university was based, not only on a desire to complete my education (if it can be said that one’s education is ever completed!) but also a long-held desire to become a writer. The challenge was to discover which genre would provide the most fulfilment of this ambition.

Fiction was tempting, but so overwhelmingly daunting by virtue of the brilliance of the work already out there that I rejected it. Poetry, yes, I had made a few attempts over the years – but the muse fled from me – dismayed by the scarcity of my talent, no doubt. What I had discovered, however, during my years of study, was a love of research.

It was this interest that sent me down to my local archives on that day in 1983, and which also led to the fateful meeting with a young man who was the second to change the course of my life. I wandered in an out of the archives many times, but this was the first and only time I encountered the young, Scottish man who greeted me at the archivist desk that day.

Archives…the word conjures up a place where serious scholars sit, day after day, poring over ancient manuscripts, inhaling the dust of the past as they untie bundles of papers which may not have seen the light of day for years, or centuries even. There is almost a reverence in the atmosphere of deep, studious silence which can be daunting to a newcomer to this arcane world of resurrecting the past by studying the words of the dead.

As I could never quite shake off the feeling that I—a kid from the wrong side of town, born into a working-class, poverty-stricken home—had no right, despite my painfully acquired university education, to think myself the equal of “real” scholars, i.e those who could spout Latin and Greek with the insouciance of the well-born and privately educated. I was easily intimidated by evidence of what I assumed were academic excellence in others. However, as the archives were a natural starting-point for my project, I had to step over the threshold, brave the hushed atmosphere and press the bell on the desk to summon the assistance of the archivist.

I came with the intent to write an article about a woman called Anne Lister who was born in Halifax in 1791. She had lived in Shibden Hall, a medieval manor-house on the outskirts of Halifax, since 1815 when she was a young woman of twenty-four. In 1826, following the death of her uncle, she inherited the property.

I asked the archivist for a look at the collection of her letters which, from local knowledge, I had learned were deposited in the archives. Given my incompetence with all things mechanical, he obligingly placed a reel containing copies of them on the reader-printer.

To my dismay, I saw that many of them were crossed. This was a technique prevalent in the days before the introduction of the Penny Post in 1840, whereby the recipient of a letter paid the postage. The cost of the postage was determined by the weight of the letter, so to minimise the cost to their friends, the letter-writer would economise on the number of pages by turning each page at a 450  angle and writing across the original lines, creating a trellis-like appearance which made for extremely difficult reading.

I exclaimed to the archivist that I found the letters virtually incomprehensible. He then turned to me and uttered the seven words…words which lit a slow fuse leading to the conflagration which was to erupt decades later.

“Did you know she kept a journal?”

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  1. Posted May 16, 2019 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

    It is amazing to me how our destiny has unexpected ways of unfolding itself. It certainly found ways to get around your prevailing sense of incompetence. Self knowledge sometimes presents itself as a lightening bolt electrifying us into awareness to what has remained hidden until the moment!
    I Love the series!

  2. Posted May 17, 2019 at 4:13 am | Permalink

    Yes, I agree with your comment, Martha, about the unexpected ways in which our destiny can be formed by various means – a chance meeting, in my case, with a young student who advised me to finish my education. But for him, the Anne Lister may not have emerged until many more years had passed.

  3. Diana Doherty
    Posted June 10, 2019 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

    Hello there i am so grateful to you to find theses diarys of Ann.What a woman didnt care what people said about her she did everything a man did .In those days woman just got married and had Babys not her.I love her to bits and i am so pleased she wont be forgotton now after 200years.The lesbians communty wont let us forget her.Ive allways be gay but in my days it was the same i couldnt say anything to anybody about it,and it was very hard.I am 69 so years back you never said anything.For years i have never been myself allways went the way of the family and i felt depressed about not finding myself.But Ann she has freed me to be myself from now on and dont care about anyone if they dont like the way i dress hard luck on them.Ann has saved my life a bit late but better than never thank you

  4. CJ
    Posted June 29, 2019 at 5:19 am | Permalink

    Where can I get a copy of No Priest But Love? I live
    in United States and it is not available here.
    I am 73 and it is never to late to learn more about the lesbians who paved the way for
    Thank you for your hard work in giving us this info about Ms. Lister.

  5. Victoria
    Posted July 15, 2019 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    Hi CJ,

    US residents can purchase “No Priest But Love” from this website: http://www.littlebrown.co.uk
    Search for the title in the search bar. Then click on the book, then using the drop down menu chose the “Kobo” purchase option.
    Let me know how it goes.

  6. Posted October 22, 2019 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

    Helena Whitbread, your work is invaluable to literary and LGBTQ history, and frankly I think you should be made a dame for it. Thank you so, so, so much for all the years of work you put into this project, and for bringing the writing and life of Anne Lister to those of us who would never have heard of her otherwise. Your labor has benefited humanity for many generations to come, and I’m not being hyperbolic in the least—I want you to know how deeply rich and meaningful all that effort was and will be. You did God’s work, alone, for many solitary hours, without any hope of acknowledgement or reward, and that makes you a true scholar. We are all ever in your debt.

  7. Jess Mitchell
    Posted August 5, 2021 at 1:56 am | Permalink

    Thank you for sharing the fascinating story behind your research into Anne Lister! How astonishing and disconcerting to think about all the little coincidences and chance encounters that lead up to a person doing something so important, without which a whole wealth of knowledge would never have come about. And how wonderful that this ground-breaking work was done by someone who had such limited access to education early in life. Mature-aged students are the best!

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