Whitbread, Helena ed. 1992. I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister 1791-1840. New York University Press, New York. ISBN 0-8147-9249-9
Whitbread has decoded and edited the candid diaries of Anne Lister, and early 19th century member of the Yorkshire gentry who was self-consciously and exclusively lesbian in her romantic and sexual relationships.
Most historic accounts of women who had same-sex desires or relationships with women show us only an outside observer's account. The motivations and feelings of the women involved are typically known only via their reports to others--a context where self-editing and self-censoring can be expected. This is why a record such as Anne Lister's can be so ground-breaking to our understanding.
Lister's diaries were never meant for any reader but herself. Key passages were encoded in a cipher to ensure privacy. And she engaged in deep and ruthless self-examination of her life and her desires, which is not to say that she was always successful at being honest with herself. This is no angel or saint. She was a snob. She regularly was less than honest with those around her, not only to protect her reputation but for all the usual casual purposes that grease the wheels of social interaction. Her notions of sexual fidelity are quite flexible. And even when she tries to be forthright with those closest to her about her long-term life plans, she flip-flops in her own heart so often that her messages are not merely mixed, they are pureed and homogenized.
Whitbread has edited two volumes of Lister's diaries, deciphering the writing, decoding the cipher, and excerpting the portions that provide a detailed view of her life and thoughts. This set of blog posts will cover the first volume (covering 1817-1824) in nine entries (the introduction and one entry for each year). I plan to break for other publications after that before tackling the second volume.
It was hard to decide how to approach my summaries--a life doesn't lend itself to the sort of "primary themes and conclusions" that I usually provide. Instead I have chosen to briefly summarize those entries that touch on her romantic relationships and sexual life, with enough other details to provide minimal context. I also have blogged these as I read through them and have not gone back and tidied up, so the reader will share my experience of being jerked back and forth as Lister firmly decides to take certain actions and then reverses herself a few entries later.
* * *