“What a comfort is this journal”: Anne Lister, Archival Adaptation, and Your Chance to be a Code Breaker

“What a comfort is this journal”: Anne Lister, Archival Adaptation, and Your Chance to be a Code Breaker

How often have you been told to read a book before you watch the adaptation? Do you dislike how some of your favourite characters have been depicted on screen? Does the ‘Now a Major Motion Picture’ sticker get your hackles up?

We tend to have conflicting responses to adaptations. On the one hand, it is exciting to see great stories shared more widely. On the other, you might feel something is lost in translation. There is even a website (Readit1st) where you can pledge to read stories before watching them. But films are in cinemas for a limited time and Netflix is forever at our fingertips. We encounter so many stories on screen before we meet them on paper. What really matters is whether you reach for the book afterwards. A good adaptation will make you want to do so.

Copyright: Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

What about adaptations of life-writing? Those fragile traces – letters, diaries, photographs, lists, receipts, even emails – of a life not yet bound up in story. How often do we seek those originals out?

When Sally Wainwright adapted Anne Lister’s life for television (Gentleman Jack) no one rushed to Twitter to say we should read Anne’s account first. This is not surprising, given Anne’s diary contains an estimated 5 million words and is partly, famously, swathed in code. But it is important to remember that Wainwright was not adapting a novel, a story with a crafted and exhaustible plot. Diaries run on different tracks, with the writer never knowing what the next page will hold. Anne could tell individual stories but not a definitive one; she could only create content insofar as she went out and lived it. And, as Wainwright notes, a diary is “not a narrative […] it’s day-by-day accounts written slowly over the course of years” (Hollywood Reporter). Wainwright was not adapting a preexisting story, she was using archival records to create one.  

Who was Anne Lister?

Portrait by Joseph Horner
Copyright: Public Domain

Anne was born in Halifax in 1791. Growing up, she would often visit her aunt and uncle at Shibden Hall, a 15th-century manor house nearby. Anne moved there permanently in 1815 and inherited Shibden Hall in 1836. By then she had already been managing the estate for ten years, and her diary records the experience of being a businesswoman and landowner in detail. It also recounts her love of nature, study, travelling, mountaineering, and women. It is the latter passion that has made Anne so famous, as she lived openly in unofficial marriage with Ann Walker when doing so was highly taboo. In her television adaptation, Wainwright managed to weave together many of Anne’s diverse passions and talents, but her source material was vast. There are so many more stories waiting to be discovered and told.

When Sally met Anne

Visiting the Calderdale Archive in Halifax, Wainwright was struck by the vitality of Anne’s diary. In an interview with E-News she recalled her first encounter: “It’s quite awe-inspiring and emotional […] you feel like you’re having this very intimate moment with Anne Lister, like you’re having a connection with her”.

This interaction is something Wainwright aimed to channel on screen. Whenever Anne Lister (Suranne Jones) delivers her lines to the camera, the audience is made aware of our position as surrogate page. We wait to be filled with Anne’s comments and concerns, to be confided in, to be trusted. But even Suranne Jones cannot recreate what Wainwright experienced in the Calderdale Archive. Initially, she was struck by the distance Anne’s diary imposes: “It’s vast, labyrinthine and inaccessible” (RTS). But as soon as Wainwright started transcribing, the barriers collapsed, like a veil falling away: “When you’re reading the code that you were never meant to read [it’s] as if you’re having a glimpse into her soul” (The Telegraph).

Lister in Lockdown

If there was ever a moment for digital preservation to prove its importance, it is now. Even as Covid-19 has forced Calderdale Archives to close temporarily, Anne remains accessible. This would not be possible without a strategy that understood and exploited the opportunities afforded to digital archives.

However, digitisation is only part of the digital preservation process, not its culmination. Anne’s diaries pose another challenge: legibility. Whilst the crypt-hand famously conceals one-sixth of the content, Anne’s freehand is also notoriously difficult to read. And so, in July 2019, the West Yorkshire Archive Service (WYAS) launched a project to make transcriptions of the diary available online too. Paired with the digitised originals, these transcriptions will introduce Anne, in her own words, to people all over the world.

Astronomyblog / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)


Transcribing Anne’s diary is not restricted to archival professionals. Just as digitisation democratises access to archives, this project opens the archiving process to everyone. If you are capable of transcribing accurately then you are eligible to join the ranks of Anne Lister Code Breakers. What better way to make use of quarantine than to connect with Anne, and others, through the pages of her diary?

Dorjana Sirola, a volunteer in Canterbury, is already “getting to know Anne by living through her entries with her”. Transcribing the diary, she finds Anne “more fascinating and complex, exasperating yet relatable, by the day. Her world grows alive before your eyes” (The Yorkshire Post).

That is the crucial point. Gentleman Jack is the adaptation of a life, not a story. And life is an unedited, fragmentary, ever vital thing. Wainwright didn’t just rely on preexisting transcriptions and biographies; she sought out the artefacts which make “history alive”. She went to where Anne’s life was documented but not yet described.

Archives are the places – whether physical or digital – where visitors revitalise the past. Engaging with traces of life, interpreting them anew, is what keeps history alive. We turn over records like stones on a beach and watch as they disclose their stories. These tales are infinite, because imagination is, and new arrivals always wash in. Gentleman Jack uncovered eight hours – just one day! – of Anne Lister’s exhilarating unruly life. Having watched one story, don’t you want to seek out the rest? Wouldn’t you like to meet her?

To transcribe Anne’s diary, visit the WYAS online exhibition, where you can learn more about Anne, the project, and how to volunteer your skills.

You can also discuss the project on Twitter with the hashtag #AnneListerCodeBreaker.


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