Book Review

The secret diaries of Miss Anne Lister

For those who are new to my blog, my friend Ken Mckellar is a regular contributor whose generosity is quite disarming. He was keen to share with me another review for a book he has read. I happen to have watched the related movie. It was a British movie released in 2010.  The story also inspired a series starring Suranne Jones: Gentleman Jack. Enjoy the review and if you are a fan of this genre (Non Fiction. Biography. LGBT. History), you can purchase the book here.

You cannot help but admire the individuality and courage of Anne Lister, who lived and loved as a lesbian in the conservative north of England in the early 19th century.

After inheriting a sprawling family home, Anne became a wealthy, independent landowner, well known for dressing in masculine black, rather than the feminine fashions of the time associated with the Bronte sisters who lived not very far away.  

In the local community, Anne became known rather disparagingly as ‘Gentleman Jack’ for the robust way she went about the daily business of running her estate. Tenants and business partners underestimated her at their peril. Despite her high profile, Anne was not openly lesbian; her sexual orientation was one of the best-kept secrets of her time, despite the fact that she openly dated many young women – evidently with great success. People seemed to be aware of her behaviour on one level, but not on another.

Her secrets were only properly revealed nearly two centuries later when her diaries (running to nearly 4 million words and written over 30 years) were discovered, edited and published only recently by historian Helena Whitbread. The result is a key contribution to feminist and lesbian history as well the source of several historical dramas which UK television produces so well.

An interesting feature of the diaries is a substantial portion written in a code invented by Anne, based on a combination of algebra and the Greek alphabet. You’ve guessed it: the encoded parts record the sexually explicit details of her encounters with numerous women.

The code was first broken several years later by one of Anne’s descendants, John Lister. A gay man himself, living in Victorian England and fearful of his reputation, he quickly reburied them.

Despite chronicling Anne’s numerous relationships with women in the UK and abroad, her diaries are so much more than that. Her story is typical of its time – a fast living (wo)man of property searching for a wife who is rich and well-connected. Yet along the way, Anne also studied maths and classics, while running her uncle’s property portfolio. She has views on everything from fashion and cross dressing to the modern dancing of the time. She faces many of the same problems that women face today, such as travelling alone abroad.

I enjoyed Anne’s diaries on so many different levels. Her style reminded me to some extent of  Jane Austen, her contemporary. Her writing is modern, assertive and takes no prisoners in its forensic description of people and situations. It gives the reader a real feel for what life must have been like for people of a certain class at a certain time. There the similarity ends. Anne’s diaries are of course pure autobiography; descriptions of her sexual encounters are disarmingly graphic, almost too graphic to be erotic; and there is a lot to read.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister deserve a place alongside Austen and the Brontes as an example of some of the most original writing in 19th Century England. Except that Anne’s truth is stranger than their fiction.

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