Shibden Hall, near Halifax, is one of those black-and-white country houses that was spruced up in the early nineteenth century: Miss Anne Lister (1791-1840) vigorously modernised the place after she inherited it from her uncle in 1826.
Anne Lister’s remarkable diaries have been edited by Helen Whitbread. The paperback edition of The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (1791-1840) (1988; Virago 2002) bears the strap-line, “the Dead Sea Scrolls of lesbian history”.
Anne Lister recognised her unequivocal attraction to her own sex at an early age, and determinedly lived her life according to her inclinations, flirting, taking lovers and eventually finding a life partner.
In her voluminous journal she recorded everyday events in what she called “plainhand”; about a sixth of the four million words are encrypted (her “crypthand”) so that she could write frankly and securely about her emotions and passions for future reflection.
After her unexpected death during a journey to Russia, the diaries remained at Shibden Hall. Anne’s ultimate heir, John Lister, and his antiquarian friend Arthur Burrell deciphered the crypthand code towards the end of the nineteenth century.
They were so shocked by the content that Burrell proposed to burn the lot. John Lister, who apparently had secrets of his own to conceal, simply hid them behind the panelling in the Hall.
When Halifax Corporation took over the Shibden estate in 1933, the town clerk enquired about Anne Lister’s diaries and Arthur Burrell delicately suggested “someone…should be, so to speak, armed with a knowledge of what the cipher contains”. The most suitable person, it was decided, would be the borough librarian.
So the diaries remained under lock and key for decades. In the 1950s, two female researchers explored the crypthand passages: one described them as “excruciatingly tedious to the modern mind… and of no historical interest whatsoever”; the other reticently remarked that the coded content was essential to understanding Anne and her lifestyle.
In an increasingly enlightened social climate, from the 1980s onwards, Helen Whitbread systematically researched Anne’s life and journals and brought them at last to public attention.
Here is a militantly individual landed lady, known to her intimates as “Fred” and to the unfazed locals as “Gentleman Jack”, striving with difficulty and increasing success to be true to her nature.
At one point she contracts a venereal complaint indirectly from her lover’s husband, and takes a surreptitiously acquired prescription to the local pharmacist, Mr Suter. She enquires if he is ever asked for this particular prescription and he replies, “Yes, very frequently.”
Clearly there was a great deal of private activity in Halifax in the 1820s, as there is everywhere, all the time. We know a good deal more about it, thanks to Anne Lister and Helen Whitbread, than several generations of Halifax’s male spinsters would have dared reveal.
Visitor information about Shibden Hall is at http://www.calderdale.gov.uk/leisure/museums-galleries/shibden-hall/contact.html.