“Before Sally Wainwright, Helena Whitbread spent some 35 years painstakingly transcribing the diaries of Anne Lister”
BY CLARA BARLEY, IMAGE HELENA WHITBREAD AND CLARA BARLEY.
Halifax has seen a host of events this year about the now infamous Anne Lister, aka Gentleman Jack. But before Sally Wainwright catapulted her onto TV screens on both sides of the Atlantic this year, Helena Whitbread spent some 35 years painstakingly transcribing, editing and publishing extracts from the copious five million-word diaries of Anne Lister, written 200 years ago.
Helena Whitbread’s life’s work sharing Anne’s story is now being rewarded with the spotlight falling not only on Anne, but also the woman who spent years decoding the secret sections of the diaries and who was brave enough to publish the explicit details of Anne’s lesbian relationships in 1988.
Just this week in Halifax, Helena Whitbread has shared her story and Anne’s with audiences at two full-house events. Firstly, a conference at Bankfield Museum, organised by Calderdale Museums who also manage Anne’s home of Shibden Hall, in partnership with The Brontë Parsonage.
The day explored how Anne Lister and the Brontës had been interpreted in museums and the media, with speakers exploring representations, myths, gender ideologies and sexuality and the search for links between these neighbouring literary and non-conforming women.
Then again at an afternoon tea event at nearby Holdsworth House Hotel, dating back to the same time as Anne with its own female owner and diarist, Mrs Wadsworth.
I was honoured to share the stage with Helena at both of these events to talk with her about her years spent working on Anne Lister’s diaries, her publications and travels throughout the world over the last few decades sharing her story.
We discussed the reactions she’s received to Anne Lister over the years and her thoughts on Anne’s new global fame. Of course, we also explored her more recent involvement in Gentleman Jack and the 2010 BBC drama, The Secret Diaries of Miss Lister starring Maxine Peake, and what she thought of the now infamous – but sadly fictional – wearing of a top hat. [Wait, what? – Ed.]
As a fellow Anne Lister writer, both non-fiction and fiction in my novel The Moss House, this week has also been an opportunity for me and audiences to thank Helena for her unfaltering enthusiasm for sharing Anne’s life. Even now at 88 years old, Helena’s determination to keep on spreading the word about this remarkable lesbian (and trying to get a publisher for her 500,000-word biography!) has become as inspiring as Anne’s own story.
Find out more about Helena and Anne Lister on her website annelister.co.uk. Shibden Hall and Holdsworth House also have mailing list sign ups on their websites to hear about similar future events.
Only reading DIVA online? You’re missing out. For more news, reviews and commentary, check out the latest issue. It’s pretty badass, if we do say so ourselves.