Helena Whitbread

‘I love, & only love, the fairer sex and thus, beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any other love than theirs.’

Anne Lister. 29.1.1821


Anne Lister has found her place in history as “The First Modern Lesbian”. Rictor Norton, in his essay of that title, says ‘If we need any evidence that the modern lesbian identity existed before 1869 we have only to investigate the life of Anne Lister (1791-1840) a well-off Yorkshire landowner. During the 1810s and 1820s she possessed a fully formed lesbian personality whose characteristics (except for the absence of a political consciousness) are easily recognizable to modern lesbians.” [See Rictor Norton, “Anne Lister, The First Modern Lesbian”, Lesbian History, 1 August 2003, updated 13 June 2008]

When I made a casual visit to my local archives some three decades ago I was quite unprepared for what I found. My interest in Anne Lister had been sparked by the knowledge that extracts from her letters had been published some years ago in the local press. As I was looking for a subject around whom I could write a short article I decided to investigate the archival resources of the Lister family.

What I found, and subsequently published, has provided a new perspective on the subject of sex between women in a different era to that of our own, for Anne Lister was a lesbian who lived in a society that did not recognise a nature such as hers. She therefore had to devise ways and means whereby she could keep her sexuality secret while attempting to find another woman with whom she could share her life. Her journals tell the intimate story of that quest in addition to giving a fascinating and detailed account of life in the Georgian era as it was lived by people in a small English town during the early era of the Industrial Revolution. She also relates in detail her adventurous travels, her studies in Greek and Latin and her management of the Shibden estate. Her business acumen was as sharp, if not sharper than many of her male counterparts in her home town of Halifax

Although outwardly Anne lived a purposeful and constructive life there are themes which emerge from the pages of her journals of love, loss, melancholy and, at times, despair. Writing her journals became an emotional outlet and a psychological prop for Anne throughout her quest to find a woman with whom she could share her life. In the privacy of the pages she could unburden herself, explain herself, justify herself. As she writes in one entry, ‘What a comfort is this journal. I tell myself to myself & throw the burden on my book & feel relieved.’[Anne Lister. 31.5.1824] Throughout her life she had a number of love-affairs with women and it is the full and frank recording, in an esoteric code of her own devising, of her unorthodox sexual life which makes her journals, so far as is known,  unique.

The 6,600 journal pages, comprising four million words, run through twenty-six volumes. The catalyst which brought about Anne’s initial impulse to ‘journalise’ was the enforced separation from her schoolgirl lover, a young Anglo-Indian girl called Eliza Raine. The two girls had been boarders at the Manor School in York and shared an attic bedroom, known as the Slope. In the intimacy of that small room they had become lovers and when Anne had to leave the school both girls were devastated. Eliza visited Anne at her home in Halifax, West Yorkshire and it was on the occasion of her departure that Anne wrote the first poignant little entry. Written on Monday, August 11th, 1806, that evocative first line, ‘Eliza left us’ leaves little doubt that the detailing of her love for Eliza was Anne’s primary motive for initiating what was to become a daily recording of every aspect of her life.

 From that early beginning, Anne went on to become an obsessive diarist, with her daily entries progressing from short one-liners to lengthy narratives detailing not only her myriad love-affairs with other women but also every other aspect of her life, from the domestic details of her home-life at Shibden Hall and the ‘ Cranfordian’ lifestyle of the social elite in her small home-town of Halifax to the much wider canvas of her domicile in Paris and, finally, her travels throughout the continent of Europe, which culminated in her premature death at the foot of the Caucasian mountains.

Anne was forty-nine when she died.  On the 31st October 1840 the local paper of a small Yorkshire town ran the following death notice. ‘On Tuesday 22 September, at Koutais, of fiévre chaude. Mrs [Mistress] Lister of Shibden Hall, Halifax, Yorkshire.’

The story of how her journals survived for almost a century and then eventually entered into the public domain is intriguing.[See pp. xiii-xx of The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister. Virago Press.2010 and Jill Liddington’s Presenting the Past. Anne Lister of Halifax 1791-1840.(Pennine Pens. 1994. 2010.)

In 2011 Anne’s journals were placed on the United Kingdom Memory of the World Register, (part of Unesco’s Memory of the World Programme) which is a list of documentary heritage which holds cultural significance specific to the UK. The Register citation notes that it is 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.’

The influence exerted by the journals extends well beyond the limits of the United Kingdom. Dr Catherine Euler, of the University of Arizona,  states that ‘[The Lister journals] have had great influence on the course of gender history and studies. They are an ongoing resource in political histories, class histories, economic histories, as well as how these intersect with gender and sexual histories…and will play an ongoing role in scholarly debates in the fields of women’s history, feminist theory, and of gender and sexuality studies…They are indeed a national treasure of international renown.’ [Letter to West Yorkshire Archives dated January 27th 2011.]

Anne’s wish for fame, expressed in the following quote, ‘…Talked of my ambition in the literary way, of my wish for a name in the world’ [Anne Lister 3.3.1819] was not fulfilled in her lifetime but her journals have certainly achieved the posthumous fame which places her in the canon of English diarists.

Anne Lister (1791-1840)

Helena 2 col

Helena Whitbread was born and brought up in Halifax, the home town of Anne Lister. Her grammar-school education was cut short, due to ill-health, at the age of fourteen. After a series of unskilled jobs she married and had four children. Always conscious of her unfinished education she began a programme of self-education via the local College of Further Education, which qualified her to enter the Civil Service. In 1976 she decided to study full-time and went to Bradford University.  After gaining a joint Honours Degree in Politics, Literature and the History of Ideas, she went on to study for a Post-Graduate Certificate of Education. Once qualified, she was employed as a teacher by Calderdale Education Department and also began to work on the Anne Lister journals. The two books of edited extracts, The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister and No Priest But Love, which resulted from her work are published in Britain and America. Now retired, Helena is working on a biography of Anne Lister.