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Historian Discovers Anne Lister’s Wife, Ann Walker’s, Secret Diaries

By December 20, 2020Literature, News

Anne Lister’s Secret Diaries were originally written predominately in her own secret code to prevent detection. The collected diaries are the inspiration for the TV series, Gentleman Jack, starring Suranne Jones which has cemented Anne Lister as a lesbian icon.

Archivists who once believed they were reading extracts from one of Anne Lister’s secret diaries, have now, however, revealed that the diary entries are not Listers but were actually written by her ‘wife’ Ann Walker.

Diane Halford from the research group called ‘In Search of Ann Walker’ first concluded that the entry was Walker’s and not Lister’s when they were examining some papers that had been collected by the Rawson family at the West Yorkshire Archive Service’s Halifax office.

Viewers of the BBC period drama, Gentleman Jack, will know that the Rawsons ran a bank in Halifax and were business associates of the Listers as well as being cousins of the Walker family, to which Ann Walker, Lister’s partner belonged.

The papers that were examined included some travel journals dated 1835. The entries had previously been attributed to Anne Lister because her coded diaries were already well-known.

However, researcher spotted a reference by the author of the entry to the death of ‘my poor brother John’ five years earlier. While Anne Lister also had a sibling named John, he died in 1810, researchers believe that this is in reference to Ann Walker’s brother, John Walker.

Diane Halford described the find as an ‘obscure find’. She has also stated that she noticed immediately that the letter ‘W’ in the handwriting mimicked the way in which Ann Walker was known to write her own name. After comparing handwriting samples, Halford’s hunch was confirmed.

The group’s (In Search of Ann Walker) find has now been verified by archivists who say that this exciting discovery will allow the same-sex relationship between Anne Lister and Ann Walker to be studied from the perspective of both women, rather than the one-sided view previously studied through Lister’s eyes.

Although the journals by Walker only cover a single year, it includes an account of Lister and Walker’s domestic life together, living at Shibden Hall, as well as covering their travels across Europe as part of a ‘honeymoon’ after the pledged to marry one another.

Unlike Anne Lister, Ann Walker does not use code but she does use abbreviations such as ‘Dr t’ for ‘dearest’ to refer to her lover, Lister. Archivist, Dan Sudron believes that the initial misidentification of the journal is partly due to the fact that both women used similar notebooks to record their thoughts.

“They were first catalogued around 10 years ago,” Sudron explains, “and this diary is only one of many items. There was a small series of records relating to both of them, and some checks were made which led us to believe the journal was Anne Lister’s. Lister was known to use a smaller journal when she was travelling, so there was a physical similarity. With their handwriting, though you can tell the difference if you have studied it, again there are similarities. It needed a detailed reading for someone to pick up on these key details.”

“With the sheer quantity of writings, the focus had not yet moved onto this diary. The listing has now been updated – it’s a small but important change. Words in Ann Walker’s own hand are very valuable.” Dan Sudron added, “It’s possible that there may be more ‘hidden’ diaries of hers, but our listings are very thorough. Very little survives of Ann Walker’s personal writings, so this find is very exciting. It’s great to be able to compare their versions of the same events, and there is such a high level of interest in both of them now. It really adds to the story of both women.”

Unfortunately, due to copyright restrictions on items held in private collections, the researchers cannot share full transcriptions or take photographs of the diary. However, the group intend to share ‘snippets’ and corresponding entries from Ann Walker’s journals on the Twitter page @searchingforann.

It is also possible that, like Anne Lister’s diaries, West Yorkshire Archives Services may eventually make the journal available to read online but this will all depend on the copyright permissions.

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