From the Desk of Helena Whitbread III

From the Desk of Helena Whitbread III

Helena Whitbread writes:

September has a seriousness all its own. There is an implicit rebuke in the following quote: “There comes a time when autumn asks, What have you been doing all summer?” What, indeed?

During ten of the August days a friend from Amsterdam was over here and we spent some days on very active Anne Lister research – in contrast to my normal sedentary modus operandi i.e. sitting at my desk or foraging in the local archives. For instance, on one day we made a car journey of some ninety miles to the Yorkshire coast resort of Scarborough to search for the grave of Dr Belcombe (Mariana Lawton’s father) who died there and is buried somewhere in the graveyard of St Mary’s church, Scarborough – which is also the location of Anne Brontë’s grave.

We spent another day in a recording studio, set high up amongst the lush green hills of the Pennines, making a (non-commercial) record of my life and work on the Anne Lister journals. The result covers 5 cds of my conversation with my friend from Holland. Talk about an ego-document! Something for the family archive though!

Books for light reading which I bought during the summer included Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth and Sophie Hannah’s Kind of Cruel and I am also reading Elizabeth Taylor’s (the novelist, not the actress) Complete Short Stories.

My writing and reading (for the purposes of the biography) over the summer has been centred on Romantic friendship in the Georgian era. At what point does it segue into lesbian love? Some tricky research there into Anne Lister’s York social circle c.1823! But the chapters are written and packed off to my agent. Now, on to the next development in Anne Lister’s dramatic and eventful life.

As I settle in to my autumn/winter work on the biography, however, the thought has struck me that, in picking out the tiny, factual details in Anne’s voluminous journals in order to weave her story sometimes makes me feel as if I am engaged in the literary equivalent of single-handedly stitching the Bayeux tapestry…

PS by DtO: I wondered in an email if the Brontë sisters ever crossed path with Anne Lister. Here’s Helena’s answer: “I doubt that [Anne Brontë] would have ever met Anne Lister, although Emily Brontë taught at Law Hill school, about a quarter of a mile on the road from Shibden Hall. It is quite possible that Emily (and maybe Charlotte) would have known Anne by sight. Some writers/academics think that the eponymous heroine of Shirley is based on Anne Lister.”


3 thoughts on “From the Desk of Helena Whitbread III

  1. Re the possible connection between Anne Lister, Emily Bronte and Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Shirley’ – see the following article, by Jill Liddington, in the Bronte Society Transactions, 26:1, pp.46 -67.

    ‘Anne Lister and Emily Bronte 1838-9: landscape with figures’.

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