• 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.

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?”

This entry was posted in blog and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>