A writer reading

March 25, 2023 at 2:50 pm (books, diaries, history) (, , , , )

There are times when I wish I could simply sit and read a good book about the Smiths and Goslings! I, more than anyone, knows the tough situation of TOO MUCH INFORMATION (“TMI”). It’s terribly daunting to have archival manuscripts from approximately the 1780s to the 1880s to sift through. And, (of course), there’s the fervent desire to FIND EVEN MORE. But: to cozy up, with book and tea, absorbing information instead of interpreting information…. HEAVEN!

I love reading publications of letters, diaries, anything relating to women’s history, Britain, 18th or 19th century especially. This morning, earlier finding a sunny spot (now it’s rather back to overcast, which can make for very depressing days…), I was reading Jill Liddington‘s newest ANNE LISTER book, As Good as a Marriage: The Anne Lister Diaries 1836-38. The two ladies are rather “bumping along” at this point in the transcription. Maybe Ann Walker would have been happier had Anne Lister moved in with her. A PLACE (yes, something MORE than just a “room”) of one’s own is EXCEPTIONALLY important to some of us. Anne Lister would NEVER have done that, of course. But as I’ve recently had a relative living cheek-to-jowl with me, I can understand that Ann Walker’s “low spirits” – depression, in some form, certainly – could also stem from the fact that she and Anne have not “set up house”, but she (Ann) has moved into the Listers’ home. Nothing is “hers” – everything is “Lister” property, “Lister” layout, “Lister” servants. “Lister” business concerns. But “Walker” money, often — though Ann is magnanimous enough to rip up what seems to be an IOU sort of document.

_I_ wouldn’t have been happy. And (in truth), such situations (my own, and Ann’s in the far past) always make me think of a long-ago co-worker: He moved into his lady-love’s house. Another (male) co-worker commented: Nothing is “his”; it’s all her furniture, placed as she likes it – no ROOM for “his stuff”. It was a while later that they sold “hers” and purchased “theirs”.

Living “together” is tough!

No wonder Anne dreamed of travel, and maybe that is what Ann also dreamed about. Rather than sitting around the house or being confronted with and consumed by land business, Ann preferred seeing new places, meeting new people! I can’t help but wonder: Maybe Ann just wanted a bit of “company” so as not to be ALONE. She indicates, more than once, that her aunt (Ann Walker, senior), was the one not wishing to have Ann as a “companion” in her home – but Aunt Ann Walker then went through “companions”. There IS something to be said for the CHOICE to ask someone to stay; or ask them to depart.

Devastating to read Anne’s comment that the Shibden servants don’t like Ann. How I feel for Miss Walker! Rather an unwelcome “stranger” in what purports to be her “own” home. Wish there were more from her pen during these months of 1836. It cannot be discounted that in moments (or days) of “being low” Ann Walker was indicating her own need to be given a bit of SPACE.

I must admit, I often “root” for “The Other” over and again. Cassandra Austen, lost in the fame of her sister Jane Austen. Dorothy Wordsworth, seen by some as the lesser light of her brother William Wordsworth. I know there’s someone I’m forgetting… Ah, yes! Emily Dickinson‘s sister – Lavinia Dickinson; and I’ll even include their sister-in-law Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson. From the TV series, Gentleman Jack, I would also include Marian Lister. LOVE HER! (Especially the more she annoys her sister Anne. And swipes are even detectable in AL’s diary entries once Marian leaves Shibden.) Of course these women are typically pushed aside because of a lack of primary materials. (Though Dorothy Wordsworth is beloved BECAUSE of her journals and letters.)

For Ann Walker, thank goodness for websites like IN SEARCH OF ANN WALKER (“ISAW”). The link here will bring you to a Comparison of the DIARIES for Ann Walker and Anne Lister, covering the time between the 4 June 1834 and the 19 February 1835. “ISAW – is a collective of researchers, transcribers, administrators and writers whose mission is to tell the full and true story of the REAL Ann Walker.” Check out ISAW’s Ann Walker “booklet” – 37 pages in a PDF (2022).

Reading Liddington’s new book, I am of two minds about comments whereby Anne Lister is “correcting” or “adding” punctuation to Ann Walker’s letter to her sister [25 May 1836], which is noted in code, or otherwise reading Ann’s letter to her sister [1 June 1836]. Was Anne Lister intruding upon Ann Walker’s privacy in her own correspondence, or did Ann invite Anne, who then (maybe) added her sentiments to Elizabeth Sutherland. In my own research, there were people who considered their letters to be PRIVATE (even if an individual letter didn’t exactly “say much”). NOT to be shown to others, NOT to be read out at the breakfast table. Others might indicate a truly PRIVATE passage by writing such before continuing the letter. A hint to SKIP over this section, or pause to read it to oneself first. (Lest someone mentioned be listening!)

Mary Gosling (Lady Smith) is one of these strictly PRIVATE people. Her letters are rarely earth-shattering, although her youthful letters are more characterful. In later letters, where the “heir” of Suttons – her son Charles – is a topic of conversation more often than not [think about it: her four-year-old child inherited their home], Mary is constantly apologizing for things, second-guessing herself, and seeking the advice of (especially) Mamma.

Whereas the Six Smith Sisters cheerfully passed around their letters, written to one, sent on to the next – often with greetings attached from that “interim” recipient, and sent on to yet another sibling.

I don’t know enough about Ann Walker’s correspondence to place, in context, the diary entries whereby Anne knows the contents of Ann’s letters, but you can bet Ann is NOT reading Anne’s letters to the likes of Mariana Lawton!

And what does Ann think when Anne is scribbling away in those diaries? _I_ couldn’t write if someone nearby knew I was sitting down to scribble my thoughts. Nor could I stand knowing that someone in my household was scribbling about ME.

By the way, Leila Straub has contributed to ISAW a fascinating look at the handwriting of Ann Walker, and the resultant letters.

For me, Anne Lister (and Ann Walker) come alive in moments like this, noted 29 May 1836. Says Anne’s diary:

“Mr. Wilkinson … preached 28 min[utes] … I was asleep almost all the while…”

Not many would confess such! Needless to say, the 29th was a SUNDAY.


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