No, that’s not a list of my former flames or current crushes. Alex and Artemisia are characters from my novel Romance by the Book: Alex is a graduate student researching the work of Artemisia, a contemporary of Byron and Shelley rumored to have more in common with Sappho than a talent for poetry. Anne is Anne Lister (1791-1840), a real-life Regency era lesbian who served as a model for Artemisia.
And Helena is Helena Whitbread, the scholar who discovered Anne’s story and (as she describes it in No Priest But Love) has spent the last thirty years “engaged in a literary, historical, and cultural adventure,” laboring to bring that story to the world.
And quite a labor it has been. Anne Lister’s diaries comprise over 6,000 pages—4 million words—and the parts that aren’t in tiny handwriting filled with abbreviations are written in actual code.
Fortunately the code had been cracked a century earlier by John Lister (a relative), who abandoned the project and concealed the diaries, but—to his credit—did not destroy them (despite being advised by friends to do so). In 1984, Helena Whitbread began reading and decoding the diaries—and never looked back.
As Ms. Whitbread herself describes, when she started she had no idea who Anne Lister was, other than the past owner of local stately home. What she discovered was that this “outwardly conventional upperclass woman,” called “Gentleman Jack” by her neighbors (which makes me think she wasn’t all that conventional), was also a lesbian, and not shy about it, either. As Whitbread puts it in I Know My Own Heart, “she had no difficulty in attaching to herself the passionate and jealous affection of a number of women whose love she returned in varying degrees of intensity.”
Nor was this passion platonic, which we know with absolute certainty thanks to the highly unromantic fact that she contracted a venereal disease from one of her lovers and later transmitted it to at least one other woman. Sorry as I am for the personal suffering of these women, I can’t help feeling glad that because of their misfortunes, the physicality of their relationships can’t be denied. Too often attempts to rediscover the truth about LGBTQ people of the past are contested by those who would like to erase us from history, disparaged as ahistorical misinterpretations of “innocent” friendships or misreadings of passages taken out of context.
Not this time.
In the words of Emma Donoghue, ‘The Lister diaries are the Dead Sea Scrolls of lesbian history: they changed everything.” And it’s thanks to Helena Whitbread that we have access to the life and words of Anne Lister.