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The life and loves of Shibden Hall's Anne Lister
Anne Lister  Calderdale Cultural Services
The intriguing Anne Lister of Shibden Hall

The fascinating story of a 19th century Halifax woman who dared to flout convention has been told on TV.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister was filmed around West Yorkshire.

Anne was a landowner, industrialist, traveller and prolific diarist who shared her life with her female lover at Shibden Hall in Halifax.

Claire Selby at Shibden says: "Anne was a complicated person and really just a fascinating character."

Inheriting the historic hall from her uncle in 1826, Anne Lister lived there until her death in 1840. She left behind diaries containing the most intimate details about her personal life, some of it written in a code which has only been broken in recent years.

Shibden Hall
Anne Lister oversaw the building of the tower library at Shibden Hall

Claire Selby, who is curator of Social History for Calderdale Museums and is based at Shibden Hall, says Anne's diaries are an amazing achievement in themselves.

Claire says: "She wrote over 4,000,000 words and she talks about everything in her diary. She could write up to 2000 words a day!

"She recorded things like the weather, social events, national events and her business interests."

Due to the strictures of the time, Anne was forced to keep her sexuality a secret from society at large, but her diaries reveal the truth about just what she got up to. It is this aspect of her life which forms the basis for the new BBC film.

Claire explains: "The part of the diary which I think will be featured most in the film, and I think what a lot of people are interested in, is the sixth of the diary which is in code, a code of her own devising.

"Although bits of it do talk about things like the financial aspects of her life - which she was quite embarrassed about as she didn't have a lot of money - a large proportion of it does talk about her lesbian relationships in quite intimate detail."

Anne Lister's diaries really do contain the sort of information one might find in many modern diaries - something which might come as a surprise when you think they were written for the most part before Queen Victoria was even on the throne.

Claire says: "She talks about her tactics for wooing women. She talks about how she likes a particular woman, how she is interested and how she has spoken to them.

Gardens at Shibden Hall
Much of the landscaping around Shibden was commissioned by Anne

"It's almost like you can see relationships developing as they go along."

"And, though she doesn't refer to it in the sort of language we use today, it is clear to see a sexual element in her relationships."

In fact, says Claire, reading Anne's diaries shows her to be quite a charmer, with a large number of women falling under her spell.

Claire says: "She approached an awful lot of women, including married women, and it doesn't sound like she was rejected very often.

"She could be very charming when she wanted to be."

But Anne's journals don't only deal in her conquests. In fact, the majority of her writing concerns her everyday life and the running of the Shibden Hall estate.

Although at one point describing Shibden as 'pokey', Anne clearly loved the place and she carried out a lot of work there to make it not just a house but a home.

Claire says: "She made a huge number of changes just in terms of the business of the estate. She started coal mining on the land and things like that.

"She also did a lot of renovation work both outside in the grounds and in the house. In the grounds she created the wilderness garden and the mere.

Claire Selby
Claire Selby at Shibden Hall describes Anne Lister as a "complicated" woman

"In the house, she put the tower on one side, she created tunnels underneath the hall for the servants and she put panelling in.

"She really did want to create an impressive family home because she thought she had a very important lineage."

But Claire Selby also believes that while Anne Lister clearly had her charms - and often used them - she also had a more unpleasant side to her character.

She says: "Anne forced tenants on her land to vote the way she wanted. She didn't have the vote herself so she got the men to vote a certain way.

"She could also be quite a snob and she really didn't like the way there were these nouveaux riches in Halifax who were making their money from the mills but who clearly didn't have any lineage."

Anne Lister died in 1840 while travelling in the Caucasus, a huge distance away from her beloved Shibden. Her lover, Ann Walker, accompanied her body back to the West Riding where Anne was finally laid to rest at Halifax Parish Church.

Her story is an amazing one and it's clear why this 19th century woman is such an incredibly intriguing figure for us in the 21st century and why, with the showing of The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister on BBC TV, her star has perhaps never shone brighter.

She was a fiercely intelligent woman who liked to know exactly what was going on in all aspects of her life
Claire Selby on Anne Lister

The Secret Diaries was filmed both at Shibden Hall and at Oakwell Hall in Birstall and stars Maxine Peake of Shameless and Criminal Justice fame who takes the lead role

As Claire Selby says, Anne is finally getting the recognition she deserves.

She says: "Anne Lister gave us a really fascinating picture of life in a provincial town. I'm amazed she's not better known.

"She was a fiercely intelligent woman who liked to know exactly what was going on in all aspects of her life.

"I'm hoping she'll get better known and that Shibden will too. She loved Shibden and it's like her heart was really here."

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