Gentleman Jack from Halifax

Elizabeth Mavor

  • I know my own heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister, 1791-1840 edited by Helena Whitbread
    Virago, 370 pp, £7.95, February 1988, ISBN 0 86068 840 2

The keeping of diaries prompts the question why, and for whom? James Boswell at 22, and going to London for the first time, piously hoped that keeping a diary might engender ‘a habit of application and improve me in expression’, possibly even ‘make me more careful to do well’. At all events, 24 pages of this self-imposed devoir were sent off each Tuesday to his friend John Johnston of Grange, a dullish youth of about Boswell’s own age, but one in whose affectionate and uncritical company he felt more at peace than with anyone. Fanny Burney, who commenced a journal at the age of 15, gave as her reason that ‘when the hour arrives at which time is more nimble than memory’ she might have a record of her thoughts, manners, acquaintances and actions. It was to be a journal, moreover, in which she would confess ‘every thought’, ‘open my whole heart’. The only proper recipient for such a treasure, she observed archly, was – Nobody. But in the end she succumbed to writing for a favourite sister and the family friend, Daddy Crisp, so that her journal was, after all, less private than it might have been, and certainly less private than Anne Lister’s.

Anne Lister was the elder daughter of a Yorkshire squire who had fought in the War of American Independence. The deaths of four brothers had left her an heiress in her own right, and by the early years of the 19th century she was living, aged 26 and unmarried, with an uncle and aunt at Shibden Hall, a mile to the south of the town of Halifax.

Her diaries, consisting in all of 24 volumes from which this book is a selection for the years 1817-1822, revealed, at first reading, a daily memoir of so extraordinary a candour that it was difficult not to think it a forgery – particularly as there was hardly any data as to its provenance. A brief flip through Paterson’s Roads for 1822, however, confirmed that the West Yorkshire gentry mentioned by Anne Lister were indeed listed in this coach traveller’s vade mecum along with their country seats. Further enquiries established that the diaries were unquestionably genuine, since they comprise part of the large body of Shibden Hall muniments bequeathed in the 1930s to the Halifax Borough Council and now in the keeping of Calderdale District Archives.

Like Fanny Burney, Anne Lister had in mind ‘a private memorial that I may hereafter read, perhaps with a smile, when Time has frozen up the channel of those sentiments which flow so freshly now’. The diary which she was to write is concerned, in inverse order of importance, with everyday matters, provincial personalities, tittle-tattle, God, her self-education, and the absorbed analysis of those sentiments of which she makes mention.

Although her extreme candour is reminiscent of James Boswell’s own, it was the Confessions of Rousseau on which she based her style. Like Rousseau, she was to write the history of her feelings, and she shared his belief that ‘I am not made like any other I have seen. I dare believe myself to be different from any others who exist.’ There was a self-evident truth in this borrowed comment, for Anne Lister was of so masculine an appearance that she was known in Halifax as ‘Gentleman Jack’. Her diary reveals that people tended to stare at her, that quite often she was the butt of ribald jokes. ‘That’s a man!’ they’d cry, and once she heard a voice enquiring raucously: ‘Does your cock stand?’ To sallies of this sort she responded with Olympian indifference. Long ago, it seems – though this is touched on only fleetingly by her editor – she had come to terms with her oddity. It no longer disturbed her. Today she might have undergone a sex change, though in view of her painfully acquired stoicism one wonders whether she would have been happier. As it was, and as she herself acknowledges, the regular keeping of her diary contributed enormously to her stability.

Like both Boswell’s and Rousseau’s, her memoirs are introspective. But it is a history rather than an apologia; nor is it so introspective as to lose touch with everyday life. There is much noting of prices, enquiries into ways and means, frequent allusions to delicious food: ‘some cold veal cutlets, cold new potatoes and cabbage brought in and made a good dinner after which took 3 cups of tea and enjoyed my late dinner exceedingly,’ she records with relish one June evening in 1817. Her writing is also, like Boswell’s, dramatic. Here is the account, told her by a servant, of her uncle’s death.

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