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Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Book Review: The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister ed. Helena Whitbread

This is a book that's been on my shelf for quite some time and what put me off reading it was the bitty nature of it. I suspected that, whether I was enjoying it or not, this would be a book that would slow down my reading schedule and I wasn't wrong. However, I'm certainly glad I got round to it in the end.

Anne Lister lived at Shibden Hall in Halifax in the early 1800s and kept a diary for most of her life. The diaries in this volume span the years 1816-1824 and document her everyday existence in Yorkshire - along with her same-sex relationships and attractions. Anything that Lister wrote in her famous 'code' are separated from the rest of the text by italics, making it easier to keep up with when she's discussing her sexual relationships with, and desires towards, women.

Certain parts of these diaries can feel quite mundane but perhaps that's the attraction. They provide a fascinating description of life as a well-off woman and the daily trials of life. However, Lister was certainly a unique woman in many ways, making her diaries an interesting juxtaposition to similar surviving documents of the era. I enjoyed reading the domestic passages, although parts do get a little repetitive - a peril of such a lengthy set of diaries.

Lister was a snob and this comes through very clearly in her writing. Her use of the term 'vulgar' gets old quite quickly, losing some of its effect by the end of the book! Alternately, I felt sympathy for her isolation, given her intelligence and sexuality, and exasperation at the way she behaved to those who wanted to be friendly with her.

These diaries are expertly edited by Helena Whitbread, including just enough contextual information without overloading the book. While the main interest may lie in Lister's descriptions of her lesbian relationships, the rest of the diaries are equally as compelling - if at times incredibly exasperating.

This book was read as part of the 'TBR' reading challenge, details here.

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