Sunday 8 February 2015

Coded Lives 1 : The Lister Code

As the UK celebrates this year’s LGBT History Month there is no overall theme as in previous years. Instead the organisers have come up with the title of “Faces of ’15: Coded Lives”’ Five members from lgbt history have been presented as typifying the various coded and secret lives that people lived. These five people are:
The Chevalier d’Eon (1728-1810)
Anne Lister (1791-1840)
Frida Kahlo (1907-1954)
Hugh Paddick (1915-2000)
and Kenneth Williams (1926-1988).

Let’s have a close look at these people and learn why they lived coded lives or, as the press release says, “communicated the truth about themselves and their lives through some kind of code or secret existence”. Today, and twice more this money, I’ll take one of these people as the main subject of an article. Two names, however, will be held over until March, for reasons which will become apparent then.

We’ll begin with Anne Lister. To the outside world Anne lived the typical 17th century life of a woman of privilege, what we could consider today as a typical “Jane Austen” heroine. But, as the highly respected lgbt historian Rictor Norton has said, Anne Lister can be regarded as “the first modern lesbian”, even though the term “lesbian” in relation to female same-sexuality wasn’t in use until half a century after her death. Anne’s diaries reveal that she lived her life just as we would recognise in a modern lesbian.

Lesbianism during Anne’s lifetime, like homosexuality, was not acceptable in British society. There are many examples of women living together (as in the Ladies of Llangollen), or of “masculine” women (as in Phoebe Bown). The fact that Anne Lister, as a wealthy landowner, chose not to follow convention and marry and produce children to inherit her estates, is testimony to her strong character and determination to follow her heart rather than tradition.

And in her diaries Anne details the subjects of her heart in code. Of the 4 million words in the existing 26 diaries that she wrote, one sixth of them reveals her relationship with several women. When they were decoded and published in 1988 they were considered so explicit and modern that some historians said they were fake. Further research proved them wrong.

So, what about Anne’s code? The story of how the code was broken is filled with as much controversy as what it revealed.

The diaries were stored in the archives of her home, Shibden Hall in Yorkshire, until the last member of the Lister family to live there, John Lister (1847-1933), decided to publish the plain-text diary entries in a local newspaper. Only then did John decide to decode the other entries Anne wrote in her secret code.

John asked a local antiquarian and teacher, Arthur Burnell, to help him with the decoding. The diaries have been called “the Rosetta Stone of lesbian history”, the Rosetta Stone being the artefact which lad to the decoding of the Egyptian hieroglyphics. As with the Rosetta Stone it was just one word which revealed the first clue. Having guessed that Anne used numbers to represent vowels (A=2, E=3, I=4, O=5, and U=6) the first word decoded by Burrell which allowed the whole code to fall into place was J5+3, “hope”.

When the whole code was revealed what the diaries also revealed was so shocking to Arthur Burrell that he suggested all the diaries should be burned. John Lister disagreed. Anne’s diaries may have revealed shockingly explicit details of her lesbian sex life (where even orgasms are described) but they also revealed so much more about 19th century life in Yorkshire that John thought they were too important to destroy. However, John was himself homosexual, and didn’t want to draw attention to his own sexuality by publishing the decoded diaries. This was the 1890s, after all, and homosexuality was still illegal. So John hid the diaries away and they were forgotten.

On John’s death in 1933 ownership of Shibden Hall passed to Halifax town council, who then sent their archivists to catalogue all documents and Anne’s diaries were rediscovered. But not the key to Anne’s code or a translation. That was still in the hands of Arthur Burrell who, somewhat reluctantly, agreed to pass it on to the council. He wane that the diaries might be “unsavoury” but trainee librarian Muriel Green went ahead with the decoding (presumably Arthur destroyed his previous translation).

When the town council read Muriel’s translation they too were shocked at the explicitness. They decided that any future use of the diaries for research and publication must omit all references to Anne’s sex life.

Moving ahead 50 years we come to a married mother of 3 who had recently graduated from Bradford University, Helena Whitbread. She wanted to do some research and publish it, but the subject needed to be convenient enough for her to study while still living with her family and which didn’t interfere with her paid work. She had heard of Anne Lister but, of course, was unaware of the sexual content of the coded diaries. What Helena found invigorated her with such enthusiasm that she even enlisted the help of her children in carrying out research further afield.

In 1988 Helena published the diaries and Anne Lister’s personal life became public knowledge. Helena Whitbread is still giving talks and lectures on Anne Lister. Indeed, she is speaking at the UK’s first LGBT History festival in Manchester this weekend. In 2011 UNESCO recognised Anne’s diaries’ importance and significance to lgbt heritage and added them to their “Memory of the World” programme.

As I will not be writing multiple articles every month to tie in with “Coded Lives” I still want to carry it through the year. Codes gives me my inspiration, so once a month I’ll write about various codes and symbols in the lgbt community.

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