Secret Diaries Past & Present- Helena Whitbread and Natasha Holme


For my entire life, my grandma- Helena Whitbread– has been studying the life of Anne Lister, a remarkable Yorkshire woman who wrote a prolific diary in code. The diary held a secret- Anne, an upstanding citizen and landowner, well known in her hometown of Halifax, was a lesbian. What my grandma was working on (and some of my earliest memories are of her on her electric typewriter) was one of the earliest surviving records of lesbianism. I remember being fascinated by the code- it’s tiny and cramped and almost illegible if you don’t know what you’re looking at- and later, after I read the translated diaries, I was fascinated by the woman herself. She really does feel like an extra relative.

I’ve read most things my grandma has written, so I was pleased to get my hands this latest project, a Q+A with modern diarist, Natasha Holme. Natasha has written a diary-also in code, also dealing with her sexuality- since she was thirteen. This book looks at the two diaries together and discusses how diarists approach their work.

It is interesting to compare and contrast the two diaries, written 200 years apart but with so many similarities, through the use of an interview between Helena and Natasha and extracts of both diaries presented side by side. The discussion of the lives of Anne and Natasha (and, of personal interest to me, my grandma!) was very interesting. Although much in the world changes, some things stay the same it seems.

This is a book for those who enjoy reading diaries and maybe want to learn more about what motivates someone to write them; a chance to peek behind the curtain perhaps. There are also rumours that Sally Wainwright is to write a series about Anne Lister; you might want to get in there before it gets huge and find out more about coded diaries now- you could do worse than start here.


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