Who was Anne Lister?
Ever since her death in 1840, Anne Lister of Shibden Hall has exerted a magnetic attraction. The newest portrayal is Sally Wainwright’s TV drama series on Anne Lister in the 1830s (BBC1/HBO, 2019 & 2022). The series, Gentleman Jack, was inspired by my books Female Fortune (1998) and Nature's Domain (2003).
The most powerful magnet remains her daily diaries. These run to approximately five million words, much of it written in her own secret code. Anne Lister’s code was not cracked until fifty years after her death.
Photo: Shibden Hall, Calderdale Museums
It was eventually deciphered in the 1890s by John Lister, who had inherited the Shibden estate. The diaries lay hidden behind panels in the Hall. Once cracked, the coded passages revealed Anne Lister’s daring lesbian affairs. Homosexuality was deeply shocking to late-Victorians, their fear of family scandal sharp. The diaries were apparently replaced back behind the secret panels at Shibden. Certainly, a forty-year silence followed.
Drawing of Shibden Hall, 1836, by John Harper (reference SH:2/M/2)
West Yorkshire Archive Service, Calderdale
Meeting Anne Lister
I moved to Halifax in 1980. Naturally a visit to Shibden followed - and I began to hear about this extraordinary woman, living on my very doorstep! Yet it was only in 1984, when the Guardian ran an article, ‘The two million word enigma’, that I became aware of her diaries. The Guardian warned: ‘many a curious amateur’ has retreated ‘thoroughly demoralized… before deciphering a single page’.
Then books began to be published - notably Helena Whitbread’s I Know My Own Heart (1988). Her edited diaries of the young Anne Lister (1817-24) sparked my interest. And in 1989, a Halifax Antiquarians’ day school on Anne Lister aroused my curiosity even further - especially about what editors had left out. So I visited Calderdale Archives in Halifax where the Shibden papers are housed, and plunged in - starting with a rough word-count. To my absolute horror, I calculated that the journals were not two but at least four million words!
By now I was gripped. I realised a full transcription was far too ambitious. Instead, I opted to transcribe three short selections from the diaries. The first, opening in 1806 when Anne Lister was just fifteen, showed how her secret code evolved and recorded her intimacies with Eliza Raine, a fellow pupil at the Manor School, York.
The second selection was from 1819, covering the tensions around Manchester’s Peterloo Massacre, plus Anne's complex flirtations with other women. The third was from late-1832, recording both the first parliamentary election after the Reform Act, plus a more mature Anne’s courtship and seduction of neighbouring heiress Ann Walker.
For each section, I examined the diaries’ portrayal of Anne Lister and compared these with the images presented by earlier editors - from John Lister onwards. I remained hooked by Anne’s extraordinary life: dazzling worldly achievements plus her unbuttoned lesbian affairs.
Presenting the Past
Presenting the Past (1994, 2010, eBook edition 2018) made this Anne Lister classic readily available to readers everywhere. It tells the dramatic story of how the diaries survived after Anne’s death in 1840; how the code was finally cracked in the 1890s; and how since then, successive generations of editors and historians have each offered their own version of the extraordinary Anne Lister.
Plunging the reader into the Archives, Presenting the Past offered the very first critical reappraisal of these dramatically different images of Anne Lister - and asks how and why earlier editors selected their version? Everyone seems to want to present their own portrayal of Anne!
These versions were largely shaped by shifting attitudes to homosexuality. John Lister died in 1933, taking his knowledge of the coded diaries to his grave. Halifax Borough then became owners of Shibden - and so of the Anne Lister papers. Yet even as late as 1964, the Halifax Town Clerk censored public knowledge of the coded sections. Indeed, it was not until 1967 that male homosexual acts were finally decriminalised. Lesbian relationships had remained untouched by criminal law, yet remained shrouded in prejudice and silencing.
I remained hooked by the compelling Anne Lister. Female Fortune (1998, 2019, 2022), presenting the 1833-36 diaries, dug deep into Anne’s world. It revealed exactly how she operated to get what she wanted. In 1832, she had wooed and seduced local heiress Ann Walker. Then in spring 1834, there was a betrothal, followed by a private marriage ceremony at Goodramgate Church, York. By autumn, Ann Walker had moved into Shibden Hall to live with Anne and the Lister family: her elderly father, beloved aunt, and irksome sister Marian. Anne also proceeded briskly to improve the economic potential of the Shibden estate. When the book came out, one reviewer’s headline pronounced: ‘She was butch, “married” an heiress and ran her own business. Oh, and it was 1835’ (Independent on Sunday, 1998).
Within three years, I met scriptwriter Sally Wainwright, who had grown up locally. She wanted to portray Anne Lister in the mid-1830s and plied me with enthusiastic questions as we walked round Shibden in the rain. She pitched drama proposals to television companies. However, the time was not yet ripe. And Sally and I had to go our separate ways.
Yet the Anne Lister flame never died. In 2011, the Anne Lister diaries were recognized internationally by the UN and included in UNESCO’s UK Memory of the World register, along with iconic diarist Samuel Pepys. Sally Wainwright had not forgotten her Anne Lister enthusiasm/passion. In 2014, on ‘Desert Island Discs’ (BBC R4), Sally chose Female Fortune as the book she wanted to take with her if she was ever marooned on a desert island – much to my delight!
Much of Sally Wainwright’s acclaimed TV drama series was filmed at Shibden. Gentleman Jack series 1 was broadcast in 2019 (BBC1/HBO), to enormous enthusiasm and international acclaim. After Covid lockdown, series 2 aired in 2022. And for the Anne Lister Birthday Celebrations, fans travelled to Halifax from around the world (particularly from the US) joyfully to honour the life (and diaries) of their inspirational feminist icon, an LGBTQ heroine for our times.
Shibden Hall 2018, its gardens adapted for filming.
After Covid hit us all from March 2020, I decided to go back to Anne Lister – from the end of Female Fortune (May 1836) to her magnificent ascent of Vignemale (August 1838). Further info on my new book As Good As A Marriage to follow..
More information about Jill Liddington's books on Anne Lister, and her other publications.