Anne Lister (3 April 1791 - 22/9/1840) was a member of a family of prominent land owners: the Listers of Shibden Hall in Halifax (West Yorkshire, UK). In 1813, when her surviving brother accidentally drowned, Anne became heir to Shibden Hall. During her lifetime, Anne kept a diary which runs to some four million words. Thanks to this diary, we have access to a lot of detail about Anne's life: her sexual and emotional relationships with women; the minutiae of upper-class 18th century daily life; and the castes and customs of life in a provincial town.
In this book, Helena Whitbread has concentrated on the years from 1816 to 1824: this is the period during which Anne's two most significant relationships - with Mariana Lawton (nee Belcombe) and Isabella Norcliffe - developed and are chronicled in significant detail.
`I love, and only love, the fairer sex and thus beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any love but theirs.' - (from 29 January 1821)
In her introduction, Ms Whitbread writes that Anne Lister began her diaries in 1806, with entries becoming more detailed from 1808. But as the entries became more detailed, Anne developed a code (which she refers to as `crypthand') which gave her the freedom to describe her life in great detail. After all, no-one else would be able to understand the code, would they?
The story of how the diaries were discovered, decrypted, then hidden because of their contents and then finally partially published is fascinating. So is the content - especially (but by no means exclusively) to those interested in women's and lesbian history. Anne Lister's account of 18th century life, of the detail of routine life and of her activities and aspirations is absorbing. Some of her views and opinions would seem quite archaic to many of us today but then she never intended for us to be reading them. Now that I have read this book, I am keen to know more about Anne Lister's life. Particularly after 1826 when she became the owner of the Shibden estate.
Apparently, many of Anne's neighbours saw her as an eccentric, a bluestocking who learned Latin, Greek and Geometry and who discussed politics. Anne Lister was the first woman to be elected to the Halifax Literary and Philosophical Society. The BBC has made a documentary drama about Anne Lister which I've not yet seen. If you are interested in the social history of this era, from less conventional perspective, you may enjoy reading this book. I did.