The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister Paperback – Jun 19 2012
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Engaging, revealing, at times simply astonishing: Anne Lister's diaries are an indispensable read for anyone interested in the history of gender, sexuality, and the intimate lives of women―Sarah Waters
The Lister diaries are the Dead Sea Scrolls of lesbian history: they changed everything. By resurrecting them and editing them with such loving attention and intelligence, Helena Whitbread has earned the gratitude of a whole generation―Emma Donoghue
[Anne Lister's] sense of self, and self-awareness, is what makes her modern to us. She was a woman exercising conscious choice. She controlled her cash and her body. At a time when women had to marry, or be looked after by a male relative, and when all t―Jeanette Winterson
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Another very inspiring part of the diary is when she visits the Ladies of Llangollen, 2 Irish lesbians who relocated to the north of Wales to escape their family and societies prejudice against their sexuality. Here's an interesting thing about that meeting, she's only able to meet one of them, the other sick. Anne realizes that these women are living the life she wants--outside of loneliness, in their own love for each other, in the context of community tolerance. She alludes to their lifestyle inspiring her in her own goals of living.
The diaries are filled with the day to day responsibilities of taking care of herself and family, while trying to live as a woman in society. Evidently Anne's butchness is very apparent, prompting insults from strangers at times claiming she's a man dressed as a woman. The details of these encounters with people, acquaintances and other closeted women is interesting from a sociological point of view.
The only other thing I wished this volume (2010) included, was the relationship with Ann Walker, which was absent of all mention. This relationship, I'm assuming, took place between 1825 to 1840; so essentially there is 15 years missing from the diaries. I'm not sure why these years are not included; from what I've gathered these years are Anne's most rewarding years in terms of relationship and commercial enterprise and development of the Shibden estate along with Miss Walker's property in coal mining. There's a very good documentary by Sue Perkins called: Revealing Anne Lister, which details some of that story, and the film "The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister" tells a little of this story as well. This last relationship with Ann Walker is a sort of happy ending for Anne until their travels abroad begin in 1839, only to end tragically with Anne's death.
So the only big disappointment is the missing entries from these years. I wanted to know how that relationship with Miss Walker evolved with both of them keeping house in the end as partners. I almost think that there should be another volume, part 2 revealing the life of these years--I'll buy it in a New York minute when it comes out!
Bottom line of these diaries is that they are a treasure, since there is not much documentation of a lesbian life of this era with such detail until these were published completely very recently (1992?). They represent a very important part of invisible lesbian history--now visible--and should be celebrated and read.
The book is very badly indexed; a casual perusal turned up 3 different mistakes, along with obvious misspellings. It is also very brief.
Also, for the reader who jumps around, you can't find out what year you're in without paging back to the beginning of the chapter. You have to go back one page at a time, since there are no page headings telling which chapter we're in (which also could have listed the year). Or simply including the year in each diary entry's date would have solved the problem.
I'm grateful the book exists and respect the work done by Whitbread, but the mechanics of the book are not great. The publisher let her down.
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.
I rediscovered and re-read Helena Whitbread's sterling work on uncovering a slice of lesbian history early last year when I became aware of the BBC's adaptation, and Helena's republication, of this book as 'The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister.'
This more recent book contains extra material and updates the original 1988 publication. I find it as thrilling now as I did then. It's continuously amazing to be presented with how a lesbian woman lead her life in such an open and brazen fashion two hundred years ago. An inspiring read and a gem of a work.
Natasha Holme, Author of Lesbian Crushes and Bulimia: A Diary on How I Acquired my Eating Disorder
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