From the Desk of Helena Whitbread II

Posted on July 27, 2012


…in which Anne Lister meets a certain Italian diva.

On Friday 27th July, Helena Whitbread writes:

Spent a pleasant day in York yesterday with sister Eileen and daughter Claire. Had lunch at the historic Assembly Rooms (now an Italian restaurant). Strange to think that, the day before our visit, I was writing, as her biographer, about Anne Lister’s presence in that very same room, almost two hundred years ago, when the officers of the 2d Dragoon Guards, who were stationed at York barracks, had given a ball there. The ambience, of course, was totally changed. Where Anne Lister would have seen gorgeously dressed women in long gowns dancing sedately with their partners under candle-lit chandeliers we were met with a rather disillusioning scenario of white and red ultra modern and functional tables and chairs, occupied mostly by mothers and children (it is the summer school holidays here in England).

Despite the discouraging lack of atmosphere, if I closed my eyes (and ears!) I could almost visualise her, standing by one of the pillars in the room, dressed in her customary black attire. “…My dyed satin made into a slip. A striped black gauze over it, prettily trimmed round the bottom. Blond round the top. I looked very well.” (Anne Lister Wed. 9th April 1823.) I raised my glass of Italian wine to her – in silent acknowledgement of her non-visible presence!

Things got a little better once we had walked to York Minster, where Anne had often worshipped and where, also, the great Italian soprano, Catalani, sang. In September 1823, Madame Catalani gave a four-day concert there and Anne attended each day. On Sunday 28th September 1823 the singer dined at the home of the Belcombe family in Petergate York. Anne was also at that dinner.

We had a final glimpse of the historic York that Anne would have known when we sat for a while in the tranquility of the walled garden attached to the Treasurer’s House, just behind the Minster. Oh, yes – Anne’s spirit is still to be found haunting the streets and corners of that medieval city if one knows where to look.

From the Desk of Helena Whitbread is a series of e-vignettes sent to us from Helena in the course of her work on the biography of Anne Lister.