Helena Whitbread is a historian and the editor of the diaries of Anne Lister, a wealthy, independent, nineteenth century lesbian landowner.
Three decades ago Helena elected to study and translate the journals of Anne Lister, which were written in a secret code of Anne's own design. At that time Helena was completely unaware of the journals’ explosive contents.
Only gradually did the truth of Anne’s lesbian sexuality begin to reveal itself. By publishing the first volume of Anne’s journals in 1988, then entitled I Know My Own Heart, Helena Whitbread made lesbian history. Such detailed and candid expression of lesbian love and sex that took place two hundred years ago had never previously been known.
In 1993, Helena published a second volume of Anne Lister’s diaries, No Priest But Love, which boldly includes more revelations of Anne’s romantic and sexual intrigues than the first. Anne Lister's diaries have been called the 'dead sea scrolls of Lesbian history'.
The lesbian world owes a great deal to Helena Whitbread for her ongoing committed study of the life and diaries of Anne Lister. Helena is currently working on Anne Lister’s biography.
You can follow Helena at @HelenaWhitbread
On the 21st June 1824, in a letter to a friend, Anne Lister wrote “I am an enigma even unto myself and do excite my own curiosity.” Following the publication in 1988 of the first edition of Anne’s journals, her enigmatic personality has excited the curiosity of many readers and scholars over the past three decades.
Born into a world which was witnessing the turmoil of the French Revolution, Anne grew up in a period of European wars abroad and reactionary politics at home. Her life was also caught up in the phase known as the Industrial Revolution. Looking back on her childhood, she describes herself as ‘harum-skarum’ and she was indeed a rebellious child who, despite her mother’s desperate attempts to school her in more ladylike behaviour, wilfully engaged in tomboyish pursuits during the day and daring escapades at night. Anne’s nocturnal activities began when she escaped from her maid’s surveillance. She admits she saw many very boisterous goings-on. She says of herself, that in the evenings she escaped her maid and went running into town where she saw many curious scenes and bad women.
In fact, Anne was almost totally out of the control of her mother who was left alone for long periods whilst Captain Lister, a seemingly indifferent husband and father, was away on military duties. She admits she was a difficult child and had to be sent early to school, at the age of seven, where her father ordered that she had to have a bed to herself and also where she was whipped every day to take the tomboy spirit out of her.
Reaching puberty, Anne became aware of her growing sexual inclination towards her own sex and her active sexual life began early. At the age of fifteen her father sent her, as a boarder, to an elite school for young ladies, the Manor School in York. There she shared an attic bedroom, known as the Slope, with an exotically beautiful young Anglo-Indian girl, Eliza Raine. Anne, no doubt fascinated by Eliza’s air of exotic difference, quickly began to cultivate the young, Anglo-Indian heiress. The two became firm friends and, before long, lovers. They addressed each other as ‘husband’and ‘wife’. Their relationship lasted from 1806 until 1810, when Anne began a new affair with Isabella Norcliffe, the eldest daughter of a wealthy landowner, Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Norcliffe Dalton of Langton Hall in the small, picturesque village of Langton, near Malton, a market town situated between York and the east coast town of Scarborough. It was through her friendship with Isabella that Anne met the woman who was to become the truest love of her life, Mariana Belcombe. However, Mariana chose to marry a wealthy landowner, much older than herself, Charles Lawton of Lawton Hall in Cheshire, and Anne was left desolate at her defection.
As her life progressed Anne had a number of other lovers none of whom could ever quite replace Mariana in Anne’s affections but her search for a woman with whom she could share her life led her into many ‘scrapes’, as she termed her sexual adventures. In fact, Lady Caroline Lamb’s famous indictment of Byron as ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’, could be seen as equally applicable to Anne Lister if some of the comments by her contemporaries which she recorded in her journal are anything to go by. For instance, on the 12th of September 1825, she made the following comment in her journal about a Mr Lally, who was heard to say that he ‘would as soon turn a man loose in his house as me.’
Anne’s figure and gait were sufficiently masculine to attract attention wherever she went and this was enhanced when she made the decision to wear all-black clothing. On the 2nd September 1817 she went to tea at a friend’s house and she wrote in her journal ‘Went in black silk, the 1st time to an evening visit I have entered upon my plan of always wearing black.’ A plan from which, apart from a small white ruff at her throat, for the rest of her life she never deviated. With her angular figure, long, tailored black clothing and her penchant for wearing heavy walking boots when out of doors, it is not surprising that the public perception of her appearance and behaviour drew a great deal of unpleasant attention wherever she went, as her journal entry for the 28th June 1818 demonstrates. ‘The people generally remark as I pass along, how much I am like a man. I think they did it more than usual this evening. At the top of Cunnery Lane, as I went, three men said, as usual, ‘That’s a man’ & one axed [sic] ‘Does your cock stand?’
There is, of course, much more to be said about this brave, courageous woman who was determined to live her life according to her own God-given (as she saw it) nature as a lover of women. On the 29th of January 1821, she set out her lesbian credo of ‘I love & only love the fairer sex & thus beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any other love than theirs’, to which she faithfully adhered throughout her life.
An inveterate traveler, it was this adventurous streak in her nature which led to her premature death at the age of forty-nine. In 1840, she undertook an extended journey through Russia. She had reached the foot of the Caucasian mountains intending to travel to Persia when she was bitten by a fever-carrying tick. She died on the 22nd September 1840. It took an arduous six months journey to bring her body back to Shibden Hall to be interred with her ancestors in the Lister vault in the Halifax parish church. Her colourful and adventurous life was over but her spirit lives on in the pages of her voluminous journals of some 6,600 pages and over four million words, written in a mixture of plainhand and crypthand, the latter being a code of Anne’s devising in order to conceal her sexual life as a lover of women. The survival of these journals after her death is an interesting story in its own right and can be read in the Introduction to The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister published by Virago Press in 2010. There has been a great deal of media interest in Anne’s life including the film made by Oxford Film and TV Productions for the BBC in 2010 but the final accolade which establishes Anne Lister’s diaries in the canon of English literature is their inclusion on Unesco’s UK Memory of the World Register, which is a list of documentary heritage which holds cultural significance specific to the UK. The register citation notes that the journals ‘…while a valuable account of the times, it was the comprehensive and painfully honest account of lesbian life and reflections on her nature, however, which have made these diaries unique. They have shaped and continue to shape the direction of UK Gender Studies and Women’s History.'