Christine, Wondering

Random Musings of a Human Becoming

Monday, September 19, 2011

Book Review #1

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister
Edited by Helena Whitbread
ISBN: 978-1-84408-729-8

Being interested both in LGBTI history and the Regency period, I was delighted to find this little gem available in my local library system and couldn't wait to get my hands on it.

Anne Lister was born in 1791 to an old, respectable Halifax (UK) family. She was a remarkable woman for her time - openly lesbian, independent, adventurous - but all the more so because she kept diaries totalling around 4 million words. This unique documentary account was kept partly in what Anne called "crypthand", a cypher alphabet that was translated by one of her heirs in the late 1800s. When the crypthand was decoded, translators John Lister and Arthur Burrell decided to conceal what it contained, partly for fear that John's own sexual orientation would be revealed as a result. They did not however destroy their keys to the cypher, and eventually both the diaries and a key came to be in the possession of the Halifax Town Council library system.

Although the crypthand was translated and studied several times over the past century, a curtain of silence was kept over the contents. They were referred to as uninteresting and dull by most researchers, though one did drop a hint that the crypthand should not be ignored. The editor of the current volume, Helena Whitbread, discovered the contents and was amazed and delighted. She knew she had found something important, and after many years of research finally published this work.

First, some notes on the editing itself. The entries are presented chronologically, with plain writing in plain text and crypthand in italics. From time to time the editor interjects a short introduction to the time period to follow, contextualising the entries and explaining references that were not clear from the text. There are endnotes for further information throughout. I found the format easy to follow.

One minor irritation was that the editor inserted [sic] after some of Anne's idiosyncratic spellings. I felt that anyone knowledgeable enough to have picked this book up in the first place would be well aware that the Regency approach to spelling was somewhat haphazard, and would not need the non-standard spellings highlighted. Whitbread mentions in her introduction that she had used [sic] after the first non-standard usage in each case; I feel that a note in the introduction explaining that spelling was variable in the time period would have sufficed. The use of [sic] was an unnecessary interjection and seemed a little patronising both towards the source material and towards the reader. It certainly did not add anything to the understanding of the text.

An even more minor gripe was that there were two small transcription errors that should have been caught at some point in the editing process. In one sentence the word "humour" appeared when the context clearly indicated that it should be "rumour"; likewise another sentence contained the nonsensical "convement" when it should obviously have been "convenient". It's impossible to know where in the process these errors crept in, but in such an important historical work based so heavily on textuality, an extra degree of rigour in editing would have been appreciated. Still, overall it was clearly presented and well formatted and the end-notes were useful.

The diary entries run from 1816 to 1824, from Anne's mid-20s to mid-30s. I found her immediately likeable and familiar. Despite the prevailing beliefs that homosexuality was wrong, by this age Anne seems to be entirely comfortable with herself. While discreetly concealing her feelings in crypthand, behind this guard she is quite open about her sexuality. If she had suffered any angst about it, it was long over by 1816. She writes freely about her love for women, her need for sex with women (referred to quaintly as a 'kiss' but clear from context that what she was talking about involved orgasms) and her relationships with several women in her social circle. As my own other half put it, "either her gaydar was really good, or there was a lot of that going on!". Anne seems to have had no trouble finding women who were amenable to her advances. She carried on long associations with two friends (the cause of some jealousy and tension between the two) but concluded that neither was her true life partner. Her longing for a wife (she used the word 'wife' herself) and the ability to live independently with a life partner pervades all nine years of the diaries.

There were several entries that astonished me. Anne writes of a lesbian friend who was having trouble sexually in her own relationship, and muses that perhaps she should have suggested that the friend use a phallus on her girlfriend. That she knew of such a thing at all, much less knew its correct name, is a testament to her wide education. She also touched on the possibility of one of her lovers marrying her in disguise (presumably Anne would play the man, being drawn to a more masculine appearance herself). This is known to have happened, just as a small number of actual lesbian marriages are known to have happened in the 19th century, but to see a contemporary woman considering it seriously was a delight. Anne knew who she was and what she wanted, and felt no shame in wanting to have the same rights to love and marriage as a heterosexual woman. Anne and one of her earlier partners took communion together after promising eternal devotion, their own way of sealing the promise, though it later fell apart as the other woman settled into her marriage and learned to be content in her publicly acceptable life.

Anne also relates conversations, particularly with her ageing aunt, which reveal that Anne's sexuality was not entirely a secret. Her somewhat masculine fashion choices were widely remarked upon (Anne relates some anecdotes of crude heckling from common labouring men) but her aunt and several of her friends seem to have understood that Anne favoured women and had no interest in men. Her aunt seems to have come to terms with the fact that Anne contracted a venereal disease as a result of sleeping with her friend Mariana, whose husband had caught it from an extramarital affair. Insofar as Anne's diary relates it, her friends accepted her 'oddity' and appreciated her for herself. Anne's self-confidence allows her to largely ignore her detractors and pursue her own interests vigorously.

I found both the crypthand revelations and the daily minutiae compelling, and spent several evenings reading intensely to finish the book. I was looking forward to meeting Anne's true love, Miss Ann Walker, who eventually moved in with her and lived with her as her wife until Anne's untimely death aged 49. Unfortunately the book did not extend this far. Although Ann is referenced once or twice in the text, it is only as a young neighbour who had not yet caught Anne's attention. Whitbread has also produced a volume of the 1924-1926 journals, which I want to find a copy of soon, and I sincerely hope she continues and gives us access to the rest of Anne Lister's life.

Anne Lister's life was an extraordinary one, but at the same time perhaps less extraordinary than we have been led to believe. Victorian and later squeamishness about lesbian activity has obscured a degree of acceptance that existed before that time. Anne's extensive network of lesbian or bisexual female friends indicates that Anne was extraordinary not for being a lesbian or even for being prepared to stand up for her sexuality, but for the fact that an account of it has survived. It is inspiring to read her words and wonder how many unwritten lives have been lived by lesbians over the years.

Overall, despite my minor problems with the editing style, this was a five-star book and I would happily read more from editor and author alike.

There is also a BBC production... and Christmas is coming... *hint hint*


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