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Anne's diaries
"I shan't say no"

The Diaries

Estimates of the size of Anne's journals range from two to six million words; the person who probably knows the diaries best, Helena Whitbread, puts the figure at "7,722 pages... containing an estimated 4,633,200 words"link. Of course, the actual number doesn't matter, because the diaries are huge, overwhelmingly so. Spanning 34 years of Anne's life, the 24 volumes and assorted loose sheets & excercise books are simply impossible for an individual to transcribe - especially as perhaps one sixth of the text is written in code, or "crypt hand".

That the diaries still exist is something of a miracle. The generally-accepted story is that the last Lister to live at Shibden, John Lister (1847-1933), discovered and decoded the journals in or around 1887 with the help of his friend Arthur Burrell. The scandalous nature of the contents caused Burrell to urge John Lister to burn the documents; fortunately he didn't, and they were re-hidden at Shidden until they were re-discovered after John Lister's death, by which time he had given the Shibden estate to Halifax Town Council.

Anne wrote in her journal nearly every day of her life, and her entries record in astonishing detail her daily life and thoughts. Most of it is fascinating, much of it tedious, and some of it raunchy. Anne uses crypt hand when writing about what she considers private: her sex life - of course - but also gossip, her health & bodily functions, her finances, her clothes, etc. In fact she encrypts much that appears to be quite innocuous, such as "cut my toenails", "near half hour mending my gloves", "dressed my hair", "mending my stockings till after eleven".

Reading the diaries

Thanks to the West Yorkshire Archive Service, high-quality scans of the entire journal are freely available here.

The language used is exactly as would be expected from a Regency writer. Some words and spellings are archaic, but anyone one familiar with contemporary literature (Jane Austen, etc) will have no problem. Some of the words Anne uses have changed or lost meaning, such as "own", to mean "admit to" or "recognise" (as in "Can you own me, Briggs? It's Miss Lister, Anne Lister"). Unusual spellings include "staid" (stayed), "shew/shewed" (show/showed), "stopt" (stopped), etc. Through is always abbreviated to thro', and though to tho'. Anne uses her own abbreviations throughout, which initially make reading the uncoded sections difficult, and sometimes it's ambiguous as to which word she is abbreviating. She usually uses "y" for "th" - this was not uncommon at the beginning of the nineteenth century, "Y" representing the now-defunct "thorn" character ("þ"), which did not exist in early printers' typefaces.[1] The readability of the handwriting also varies from day to day, adding an extra barrier. However, and I speak from experience, one soons becomes accustomed to the text.

Anne became quite proficient in French, and she doesn't hesitate to use it in the diary, especially when she's in Paris. She also started to learn German while in Copenhagen, so German also occasionally appears. Google Translate is your friend. There's also some Latin, and more problematically, some Greek.[2]
Anne also uses a vocabulary of her own devising to describe certain things and actions, all of them very personal:
"uncle"-Water closet
"cousin"-Menstrual period
"queer"-Female genitals/vagina  (derivation unknown, but possibly related to quim and/or cunt)
"grubble"-Manual stimulation of (someone else's) queer, either directly or through clothing  (grubble is a real, although obselete, word: "to feel/grope in the dark")
"kiss"-Orgasm, usually during sex with a partner  ("kiss", meaning sexual intercourse, is believed to have been in general use during the period and before, equivalent to the French baiser - which means "to fuck" as well as "to kiss")
"incur a cross"-Orgasm through masturbation  (Anne even tells us how she goes about it: "incurred a cross in my own way - that is by rubbing the top part of queer")
Early in the diaries Anne appears to refer to her masturbatory orgasms as "kisses", as in the first words of the entries for three successive days[3] in August 1816: "I had a kiss"
"go to Italy"-To have a full sexual relationship with someone, as in "She will go to Italy. But not with me"

See packedwithpotential.org for a much more nuanced guide to Anne's sexual practices and language.

The Code

Much has been written regarding the diary code, suggesting that it's super-complicated and uses all sorts of arcane symbols. In fact, it's a very simple substitution cypher, where each letter is replaced by a different character. Nearly all of the substititions are alpha-numeric, with some additional mathematical ("+", "=", "~", etc) and punctuation ("!", ";", ":", etc) symbols. Greek is only used for "Mariana" and "Charles" (and, very rarely, "Miss Brown"). Many of the symbols Anne is supposed to have invented simply indicate a double letter, with a vertical or horizontal stroke through the base character. Only two words, "Miss" and "Mrs", and H, V and TH are replaced by unusual symbols.

Often referred to as "Anne Lister's code", it is likely that the cypher was devised in collaboration with Eliza Raine, or even by Eliza alone. Early letters from Eliza to Anne written in code exist, and she (Eliza) referred to it as "my alphabet".

The coded text is almost always written much more clearly than plain hand, so in some ways is easier to read. It looks like some sort of all-caps rant on the page, and you can almost believe than Anne wants it to be read.

~ ~ ~

My online de/coding tool can be found here: xldev.co.uk/CryptHand.html

An alternative is the Wuluwuh Anne Lister Encoder/Decoder.

[1] This is the "Y" in "Olde English" signs such as "Ye Old Shoppe"; it was never pronounced as Y, always as Th.
[2] I didn't attempt to transcribe any of the Greek I came across.
[3] August 15, 16 & 17. Anne had been flirting with Anne Belcombe the evening before on each occasion, but there's no indication that they spent any of the nights together.
Page updated 3-Mar-2021
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