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.

Just before tea, had Fanny into the sitting room and wrote down the following (on a scrap of paper, from which I am now copying it) verbatim as she told it. ‘My Master was very restless till 12, throwing his arms about and saying “Oh, I’m sick – I’m very ill – talk to me. Is it not what they calling drawing away.” Then my Mrs came in and went up to him and said, “Must I come to you Joseph?” and my master answered, “Yes! Do!” putting out his hand. “Oh, I’m very ill” and my Mrs said “Call upon the Lord, Joseph – he’ll hear us – he’ll help us – he’ll comfort us in our time of need, love – he will.” “That’s what I want, to deliver myself up to the Lord.” Then my Mrs said, “Now Joseph, you’re easier – you’re comforted – are you not Joseph?” and he answered, “Yes.” ’

But Anne Lister’s writing has a quality not shared to the same degree by Boswell and Fanny Burney, who might both be said to have ‘created’ their diaries, shaping and re-shaping them into set-pieces, much as Gainsborough worked up his finished studio paintings from sketches. For she excels in the impressionistic quality of ‘on the spot’, a catching of the elusive moment, and this she shared with contemporary watercolour painters of landscape. It is her peculiar facility for doing this in words which enables her to communicate so readily what she sees and feels. Often no mighty matter, as it happens – only Miss Fairfax at an assembly ‘shockingly disfigured with out-of-curl ringlets literally almost a half yard long, and an awkward dancer with elbows like skewered pinions’. Her old father is ‘so desperately vulgar. He speaks loud of what he used to see and do long since. Points at everything and spits every now and then.’ There is the young man come to put down the old black mare: ‘He stabbed her thro’ the heart and she was dead in less than five minutes and buried immediately.’ It is the stuff of good writing.

She makes it possible, too, for us to see herself – sharply vignetted, whether scaling her teeth, mending her stays, reprehensibly relieving herself as she waits alone in the stage-coach outside the Golden Cross at Leeds – ‘sat down, or squatted in the bottom and made water so that it ran out’ – or, like Emily Brontë, discharging her pistol out of a bedroom window: ‘The report was tremendous. It bounded out of my hand, forced itself thro’ the window, and broke the lead and 2 panes of glass. My hand felt stunned for some time.’

Her ability to put us ‘on the spot’ does not extend, however, to the contemplation of Nature. She certainly exhibits a professional interest in weather as it affects crops or travelling, but her diaries are innocent of anything that resembles the visionary landscapes of Dorothy Wordsworth, or later of the Brontë sisters, living not twenty miles away from Shibden. Anne’s awareness of the country about her remained unrefined, it seems, by any reading of the beautiful entractes of Thomson’s Seasons, say, or the more modest bucolics of Cowper. This is strange, for she had secret aspirations to be an author, and in her own, as in everyone else’s, eyes she was a bas bleu. Like her elder sisters in Sensibility, Elizabeth Carter, or the Ladies of Llangollen, whom she greatly admired, she sought with her self-education to adhere to a ‘system’ or working timetable. Had she not read The Proper Employment of Time, Talents and Fortune by the Llangollen Ladies’ friend Harriet Bowdler, and as a consequence, perhaps, resolved never to rise later than five every morning? But it was a resolution which seems to have been undermined by frequent bouts of lying-in and taking snuff, louche then as smoking is now.

It must be said nonetheless that Anne Lister’s intellectual pursuits were more rigorous than those of the Ladies and of the majority of their friends. Some of the books mentioned in her diary were certainly commonplace to all gentlewomen of Sensibility – Lallah Rooke, Dr Young’s Night Thoughts, Byron’s Childe Harold, Zimmerman on Solitude, but for the most part her reading consisted of sterner matter. Studying Greek and Latin with the local parson, she read Demosthenes, Sophocles and, perhaps privately, the Satires of Juvenal, the sixth Satire in particular, which deals with certain sprightly immodesties of feminine behaviour. She was familiar too with Euclid, Emerson’s Mechanics, Bonneycastle’s Algebra, Thomson’s Chemistry, Malthus On Population. ‘I would rather be a philosopher than a polyglot,’ she confided sternly to the diary.

Yet for all her blue-stockingism she was not, in her politics anyway, of a liberal cast of mind, and this at a period, and in an area of the country, where radicalism was at its most passionate. The Luddite riots described in Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley had racked West Yorkshire five years before Anne’s diary began, and the Peterloo massacre took place in nearby Manchester two years later, in 1819. ‘Called for a newspaper,’ she writes apropos visiting the town a month after the tragedy: ‘read a little while but fidgetty and tired of waiting in the house, sent for someone to show me Petersfield and its environs, the scene of the late meeting and dispersion of the Manchester radical reformers by the yeomanry and troops.’ There is no further comment, though on the actual day of the riot she recorded how radicals meeting in Halifax itself had passed a vote of thanks to a Mr George Pollard for opposing the raising of a troop of yeomanry – perhaps, she hazards, preventing her town from being turned into a sea of blood.

She was probably less a political reactionary than a conservative by temperament. ‘Time with me,’ she was to write later, ‘is such a sanctifier of everything.’ This was especially true of her heart, and the core of these diaries is concerned, like the Confessions of Rousseau, with the history of her heart. ‘I am very low. The tears gush as I write, but thank God, I generally feel relief from thus unburdening my mind on paper ... Oh, how my heart longs after a companion and how I often wish for an establishment of my own, but I may then be too old to attach anyone and my life shall have been passed in that dreary solitude I so ill endure.’ ‘Oh that I had a fit companion to beguile the tedious hours.’ It was to be a constant threnody, and her search for ‘a fit companion to dote on’ landed her in many ‘scrapes’.

On a Monday in January 1821 she made a note that she had burnt Mr Montagu’s farewell verses: ‘that no trace of any man’s admiration may remain. It is not meant for me. I love and only love the fairer sex and thus, beloved of them in turn, my heart revolts from any other love than theirs.’ It is not so odd that Anne Lister, with her particular bias, should have written such a manifesto. What does cast a stangely heliotrope light over the social landscape is that she should have encountered, as the diaries bear witness, such enthusiastic reciprocity among the gentlewomen of York and Halifax.

Almost thirty years before, Mrs Thrale had noted in her journal that a new and hitherto unsuspected form of female friendship was beginning to emerge in society: ‘The queen of France is at the Head of a Set of Monsters call’d by each other Saphists.’ Rather later she was to suspect that the city of Bath was ‘a cage of these unclean hens’. Up to this time, the secret relationship between women had, in England at any rate, been given no clearer definition than that of ‘romantic friendship’. But by the time Northanger Abbey was first published, in 1818, it appears from Anne Lister’s diaries that the cult was well-established in Northern provincial life. Anne herself touches on the possibility that certain books may have been responsible, also boarding-schools, though she does not comment on the extraordinary tolerance, even by present-day standards, with which such affections were regarded in society, or the freedom with which they were discussed.

Could there possibly be more than ‘friendship’ between the famous Ladies of Llangollen, asks Miss Hodgson, who is working a neat habit-shirt. Anne sits beside her eating the petals of two faded white moss roses and ‘talking’, as she admits in the diary, ‘in a general sort of flirting, lovemaking style that Miss Hodgson uncommonly well received and returned and seemed to relish and understand’. As to the question, Anne appears for a moment to hesitate: ‘I cannot help thinking that surely it was not platonic. Heaven forgive me, but I look within myself and doubt ... But much or all depends upon the story of their former lives, the period passed before they lived together, that feverish dream called youth.’

Although there is very little told us in the Introduction about Anne’s youth, it appears that in her teens she met and was charmed by Isabella Norcliffe of Langton Hall near Malton, a woman six years older than herself. It seemed for a time that they might share their lives like the Llangollen Ladies or the heroines of Millennium Hall, a popular novel of female Sensibility. But, as it turned out, Isabella was soon displaced in Anne’s affections by a much younger girl, Marianne Belcome. In spite of the intensity of this new relationship, Marianne married the squire of Langton Hall in Cheshire, though continuing from time to time to visit her friend, and suggesting that she would leave her husband to come and live with her. In consequence, Anne’s heart for some time was to waver uncertainly between ‘M’ and ‘Tib’. The often painful accounts of the waverings are in code, though for each friend a key was usefully provided, by which means Helena Whitbread has been enabled to penetrate a secret life quite remarkable in the openness of its expression.

Dramas both melancholy and uproarious with ‘M’ and ‘Tib’ (at one point Anne had a mind to disguise herself as a man and marry Tib in church) are interspersed with hectic flirtations with the Miss Greenwoods, Browns, Pickfords and others who then frequented Halifax polite society: ‘I know how to please girls,’ she writes confidently. It makes one have second thoughts about the outwardly placid-seeming society of Jane Austen. More private still are the treatments she underwent for VD (caught from M) and her erotic phantasies:

Foolish fancying about Caroline Greenwood, meeting her on Skircoat Moor, taking her into a shed that’s there and being connected with her. Supposing myself in men’s clothes and having a penis, tho’ nothing more. All this is very bad. Let me try to make a great exertion and get the better of this lazyness ... May God’s help attend this resolution.

It is fascinating to perceive how she manages to square her way of life with her religious beliefs. About this matter she appears tolerably unconfused if her interrogation of poor Miss Pickford is anything to go by. It is an interrogation subtle as any undertaken by Lucy Steele in Sense and Sensibility. Miss Pickford has a friend, Miss Threlfall, and Anne desires to know precisely the nature of their relationship.

‘I said I considered her connection with her friend a marriage of souls and something more,’ she begins artfully.

That if they were on a visit and their friend provided them with separate rooms, it would be unnecessary, and they would presently defeat this arrangement by being together. Under other circumstances it would have been a wonder that, with beauty, fortune etc, Miss Threlfall did not marry, but now it was no wonder at all. Asked Miss Pickford if she now understood me thoroughly. She said yes. I said many would censure unqualifiedly but I did not. If it had been done from books and not from nature the thing would have been different. Or if there had been inconsistency, first on one side of the question or the other, but, as it was, nature was the guide and I had nothing to say. There was no parallel between a case like this and the sixth Satire of Juvenal. The one was artificial and inconsistent, the other was the effect of nature and always consistent with itself. ‘At all events’ said I ‘you remember an early chapter of Genesis and it is infinitely better than the thing alluded to there meaning onanism. This is surely comparatively unpardonable. There is no mutual affection to excuse it.’

‘Now,’ continues Anne Lister, appearing even more to resemble Lucy Steele,

‘the difference between you and me is, mine is theory, yours practice. I am taught by books, you by nature. I am very warm in friendship, perhaps few or none more so. My manners might mislead you but I don’t, in reality, go beyond the utmost verge of friendship. Here my feelings stop. If they did not, you see from my whole manner and sentiments, I should not care to own it. Now do you believe me?’ ‘Yes’ said she ‘I do.’

It is a passage that could have been written by Jane Austen, and it makes one think that Anne herself would have made an excellent novelist. The casuistry of the passage is a little redeemed by its ending:

Alas, thought I to myself. You are at last deceived completely. My conscience almost smote me but I thought of ‘M’. It is for her sake that I first thought of being, and that I am, so deceitful to poor Pic, who trusts me so implicitly.

In the end, it was to be neither M nor Tib who finally shared Anne Lister’s life. Although M and Anne continued to meet for some years more, M could never quite bring herself to leave either her husband or the comforts of Langton Hall, while Tib, perhaps in despair, began going downhill in a fury of drink and snuff. It was a local heiress, Miss Anne Walker, with whom our Anne chose to share the rest of her short life, but for the account of this and their subsequent travels, we must await a further volume.

Helena Whitbread has given us an admirably unbiased and far-ranging selection from the remarkable diaries of this courageous woman. The transcription from the small difficult hand must have been as arduous as the translation from the code, which alone took two years. For this we must thank her. At the same time, it must be said that Mrs Whitbread has been badly served by her editors at Virago. It is the greatest pity they did not see fit to ask for a full account of the provenance of such valuable papers, and that they did not call for a more informative biography of the author or for proper notes on West Yorkshire personalities and events, and that they did not provide the book with an index. But how right Helena Whitbread was not to leave this fascinating woman buried in the Calderdale archives, her extraordinary life hidden in the labyrinth of a code. For in all literature it would be hard to find a diarist who approaches with such courage and candour the secret places of the mind and heart.