The Women of My Dreams: Alex, Artemisia, Anne, and Helena


Romance by the Book

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.”

Portrait of Anne Lister by Joshua Horner, ca. 1830

Portrait of Anne Lister by Joshua Horner, ca. 1830


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.


Jeanette Winterson says the diaries gave her courage. They gave me inspiration. What will they give you? There’s only one way to find out.


9 Responses to “The Women of My Dreams: Alex, Artemisia, Anne, and Helena”

  1. 1 Linda June 23, 2015 at 12:17 PM

    Absolutely loved this book! Very inspiring indeed.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. 2 jo victor June 23, 2015 at 1:49 PM

    Ooh! Thank you. Oh, wait, did you mean my book or Ms. Whitbread’s book? (I’m good either way.) 🙂


  3. 3 Devlyn June 23, 2015 at 11:00 PM

    Looking forward to reading your book this month. Thanks for the blog it gives me some insight to the story.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. 5 Sharon E. Owens June 24, 2015 at 3:14 PM

    I just bought your book and Ms. Whitbread’s book from Barnes and Noble and look forward to reading both. A few years ago I saw a movie based on Anne Lister’s diary at a Lesbian/Gay film festival.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. 7 S.A. June 24, 2015 at 4:48 PM

    I’m officially intrigued! Can’t wait to read both your and Ms. Whitbread’s books. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  1. 1 The Women of My Dreams: Alex, Artemisia, Anne, and Helena (Guest Blog) | Jo Victor Trackback on June 23, 2015 at 12:14 PM

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