Book of the Month - The Moss House
April 24, 2024
'The Moss House' is a passionate story of forbidden love and adventure. Wealthy 19th century landowner and diarist Anne Lister, the first modern lesbian, and her lover Ann Walker conduct their courtship and travels whilst battling a society stuck in the past and discover what it means to show the world your true self.’
- Description taken from the Halifax Central Library catalogue.

Welcome to our CultureDale Book of the Month series! Throughout the Year of Culture, we will be promoting work from local authors and giving you a flavour of their books through synopses and reviews from Halifax Central Library, our own team’s thoughts, and occasionally exclusive Q+As with the authors themselves.

To kick off the Book of the Month series, we are bringing you The Moss House by Clara Barley, an historical romance centred around Halifax icon Anne Lister and her relationship with Ann Walker. After our internationally known Anne Lister Birthday Festival took place at the beginning of the month, where better to start than with Halifax’s most famous daughter!

Below, we were able to sit down with The Moss House’s author Clara Barley (real name Angela Clare) and talk about the process of crafting this complex love story, weaving the historical record with fiction to create a piece of work that established fans and first-timers alike can enjoy.

Left: a portrait of Anne Lister; Right: the cover of The Moss House

What was your motivation in writing The Moss House?

I started the novel in 2016 after interviewing Helena Whitbread at Shibden Hall for a film to be shown on site and had been fascinated by her answers. I’d read Helena’s and Jill [Liddington’s] books but hearing about Anne directly from Helena inspired me to try and capture her story somehow.

I’d previously worked writing and performing scripts at the Royal Armouries, sharing stories of historical people and events, and so started to write in first person as if for a performance, but I think I just got carried away and I had so much to write. I also found myself going deep into Anne’s inner thoughts (or my own at least!) and knew straight away that it would work best as a novel. There were no novels about Anne and so I wanted to get something written quickly before anyone else did. It seemed too good a story. I was obviously keen to research and represent Anne Lister in my work for Shibden Hall, but writing a novel in my own time was exciting and meant I could elaborate on ideas and things about her life we’ll never know.

As soon as I knew it was going to be a novel (probably that same evening I started writing) I knew I needed a second character. I didn’t want to write just a long one-sided narrative, or try and replicate a diary voice – it needed to be personal, but also needed some drama and at least one other character to keep the story going, and not just all be Anne’s point-of-view. Living and working in Halifax also inspired me to describe and include the area where possible, describing the landscape and views and even a mention of the Cragg Vale Coiners. There is lots of interesting local history and heritage in this area which I wanted to share in the novel too.

Helena Whitbread (left) with Angela Clare, holding their respective books

To what extent did you use her diaries as a source of information for the novel’s emotional content? Did you feel a gulf between reading and researching about her real life and being able to attribute fictionalised emotional significance to the narrative presented by the historical record?

In 2016-2017 the diaries were only available in black and white scans, which were very hard to read and had to be downloaded one page at a time. I relied on the available published books and articles of the time, which were luckily few enough that I could read them all, make notes and create a chronology, and then put them to one side and create my own world and lives of Anne Lister and Ann Walker.

I had no idea what was coming next in the form of Gentleman Jack, or that the diaries would eventually be transcribed. Once written, I put my novel to one side as I got cold feet about sending it out and didn’t really know what to do with it or how to approach publishers. It was only in 2018, when Sally [Wainwright] confirmed she was filming a TV series that I realised I needed to do something with the novel before someone else beat me to it!

Now I’m finishing off my second novel based on Anne, it has taken me much longer to write as there is so much information about her now, and a great deal more about Ann Walker; it’s hard to know what to include and to not sound too much like retelling the diaries. Reading the diaries is very time consuming and you can read an entire volume of several hundred thousand words and then end up with only two thousand words to show for it in the novel.

My second novel, The Mere Side, features Mariana Lawton instead of Ann Walker, and I’m liking that Mariana is much less known, so I have more creative freedom to create her world and inner thoughts and character, much as I was able to do with Ann Walker in the first novel.

The novel is written in the form of alternating and often complementary diary entries between ‘Miss Lister’ and ‘Miss Walker’ – did you settle on this structure early on in the writing process, or was it something that came about later?

The two different voices were with me from very early on and came naturally to me when writing. I’d started writing a script as Anne and had a draft script as Ann Walker and these quickly merged into the format for the novel. I could imagine and hear the two characters very clearly in my head and have always liked how people remember and think about things differently and enjoyed the chance to play with this for the novel. I repeat this in my new novel, except this time Anne is up against Mrs Lawton, Mariana, with a very different dynamic between them, and spanning their entire lives so they both also change and grow up as the novel progresses, whereas The Moss House was mainly just the last 7 years of Anne’s life, when she is already in her 40s.  

A photo from The Moss House's book launch in 2019

Following on from that, how did you find the process of crafting Ann Walker’s inner thoughts compared to the more headstrong and confident record of Anne Lister’s diaries?

Writing as Ann Walker gave me freedom to address more issues and women’s experiences. At the time of writing so little was known I was free to make assumptions and, whether correct or not, I hope they were sympathetic and believable. Whilst Anne always seemed very accepting of her sexuality and was aligned with her faith, I can’t imagine many women 200 years ago not struggling with their desires to go against social norms, religion, family and gendered expectations etc. I know that is it not easy to be yourself, even 200 years on, so tried to imagine the pressures on Ann Walker to confirm, but also to be with Anne Lister and her expectations, with the two women coming from very different backgrounds and experiences.

How much do you think that your interpretation of Anne Lister played into the creation of the narrative around herself? There almost seems to be a self-mythologising nature to her, the way she dresses, the detail of her diary-keeping, her desire to be the first to summit a certain mountain. Or was this identity formed by the social reality in which she lived, which constantly denied the validity of her experiences?

I think Anne’s diaries are open to so much interpretation and analysis, and I always try to remember that she only wrote them for herself. I think she would be mortified that we read them, and read into them. There are so many layers to unpack – that they were private, that within them she also wrote much in code that she never wanted anyone to crack, that she also edited what she wrote, she chose how to record her life and what to write about, omit, and even removed pages after-the-fact. There is conscious editing as well as subconscious editing, she may not have even known or concerned herself about why she chose to write some things down, but not others. We also have missing diaries, so there are still large gaps in our knowledge pre-1817 and throughout the last weeks of her life. There are thousands of letters which were destroyed or lost and those letters that do survive give another layer of her character, revealing how she was with intimate friends, acquaintances, and family members– a very different voice to that of the diaries.

A collection of Anne Lister's diaries. Left: her preferred marbled leather diary cover; top and bottom right: selections of her writing, some in code.

Even if you have the time (and patience) to read all five-and-a-half million words you can’t remember all of them, or even very much, and you will have formed an impression of Anne and your own ideas about who she was. I think we all go looking for ourselves; experiences and characters to relate to and can adapt what we read to fit what we are looking for. But even with intimate detailed diaries, the only person who will ever really know what she felt would be herself. There is much research into diaries as a source of historical information and how careful you must be to use them well. That’s where fiction is great as you can ignore any rules and recommendations and pick what you like to use and create a new voice.

To have such a legacy of her diaries, letters and her home surviving is extraordinary, as was her life. The recording of her life in such detail does seem to be a means of control, when she had very little influence over her own life until she first inherited in 1826, aged 35. All the time before then she was at the mercy of her relatives to provide for her, and not force her to marry. She was lucky in some way to have the life and privilege she had, but it must have played on her mind that she was never really ‘free’ until she was assured of a home and income, and even then, not fully her own until her father and aunt’s deaths in 1836. I wonder if diary writing gave her some autonomy and control by recording, as well as pushing herself to study, travel, learn languages and music, as these were the things she could influence. There are more studies being shared at the Anne Lister Society conference so it’s fascinating to see how people are studying her life.  

What other upcoming projects have you been working on?

For now, I’m setting aside the diaries and new scholarship and just finishing off my own version of Anne and Mariana, which will hopefully be out next year!