21 Feb 2020


ISBN 978-1844087198

Anne Lister (1791 - 1840) defied the role of early nineteenth-century womanhood; she was bold. fiercely independent, a landowner, industrialist and traveller who lived openly as a lesbian. She kept intimate diaries of her life and loves, much of which were written in code.
- Back Cover Blurb

You descend to Buxtondown a very steep narrow road with an ill-fenced off precipice (the case in many other parts of the road) on your right.
- First Sentence, 1816

Had mourning sent over from Farrar's & bought for our own 2 women servants 17 1/4yds (the cook being so big takes 9 1/4yds) at 4/6 & twill'd stuff at 1/8, it being very good & there being no better.
- Memorable Moment, Page 32.

MY THOUGHTS ... Like many others Anne Lister only came to my attention when I watched last year's BBC's Gentleman Jack, a series based on these diaries.

Apparently not only written in minute hand writing but also in code, the diaries (deciphered by Helena Whitbread who offers the occasional explanation/aside) offer a fascinating insight into not just the life of an exceptional woman but the life of a woman of a certain class living in mid/late eighteen hundred England. 

Amongst the chronicling of routine life as lived by Anne, perhaps most interesting for me were the   entries in which she explored her sexual identity/attraction to women; her primary struggle being nothing to do with her religion as you might expect (a church goer for social rather than religious reasons though she often details her praying, asking for forgiveness for what she herself describes as her sin) but rather the gossip she must endure because of it. Mind you, a close second, came the descriptions of some of the 'medical' procedures of the time - leeches for toothache, the bathing of wounds in urine, need I continue?

As you may expect, different to the BBC dramatisation. I couldn't help but be a bit disappointed that though this set of diary entries (1816-1824) (subtitled as volume 1: 'I Know My Own Heart') did include Anne's feelings for/'dalliances' with several other women it didn't really include her romance with Miss Walker ... something I'm presuming that actually happened later in her life and as such will be included in the second volume of her diaries, 'No Priest But Love'.

For me, whilst an astute piece of social (some would sayLGBT+) history, not quite as interesting as I was maybe hoping. Yes, there is a great accounting of Anne's comings and goings BUT, largely straight forward, the entries tend to be lacking in description ... something that was probably only to be expected given that they were never written with a view to them being published. 

SUMMED UP IN A SENTENCE ... Interesting if  what some would consider mundane; for the most part the diaries are an account of the minutiae of upper-class 18th century daily life as lived in a provincial town, anyone expecting a risque account of Anne's life will be sorely disappointed as there is nothing titillating about the entries.

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Kelly said...

While I find the subject matter interesting, I'm afraid I struggled a bit with the opening line and memorable moment. They didn't seem to flow very well for me. Maybe that's because they're taken from diary entries - written in code, at that? I don't even want to think about where those leeches were attached for the toothaches. 😱

Too bad it wasn't as good as you were hoping for.

Brian Joseph said...

I think that most diary entries. No matter how interesting the people or subjects, would get bogged down in minutiae. I think that it is the job of a biographer to take diaries and other first hand materials and turn them into digestible stuff for most readers.

nightwingsraven said...

After reading your review, I
definitely think that Anne Lister
was an interesting woman. But I am
still uncertain about his book, but
I will keep it in mind.
And thank you for your honest and
excellent review.