by Dr Louise Chambers
When researching lesbian history, it’s not always easy to identify same sex desires between women because, firstly (and most obviously), it was not always possible for women to express their desires for each other and, secondly, it is not always easy to differentiate between female friendships that are intimate, but platonic, and others that could nowadays be described as ‘lesbian’. However, every so often, historians will encounter a woman who makes our research a little easier and one of these women is the remarkable Anne Lister, who had the presence of mind to chronicle her life in a series of journals. Of course, Anne had to be a little careful, so she coded parts of the diary entries but, thanks to sterling work by historian Helena .Whitbread, they were decoded and we are now able to read them in “I Know My Own Heart” and .“No Priest But Love”, both of which are edited by Helena Whitbread herself.
Anne Lister was born on 3 April 1791 at Halifax in West Yorkshire. She had four brothers, but they were all dead by 1813, and consequently, in 1815, she inherited the family property at Shibden Hall in Halifax. Anne’s companions at the Hall were her Uncle James and Aunt Anne, both of whom had a very liberal attitude towards what women were permitted to do. Consequently, Anne Lister had a great deal of freedom and made the most of this by engaging in what would have been considered some very .‘unladylike’ activities, including self-education (she studied Greek, Latin, mathematics and geometry and read Gibbon and Rousseau), shooting and travelling extensively. Anne was the first woman elected to the committee of the Literary and Philosophical Society (Halifax branch) and took an active interest in schools in the area. She managed her estates, dealt with the business of farming, and developed coal-mining on her land. Much of her working life was spent out of doors supervising workmen and, at times, tackling some of the physical tasks herself. Apparently, Anne was known locally as ‘Gentleman Jack’, and her ‘masculine’ appearance did cause some comments which Anne herself notes in some of her diary entries. She wrote, in 1818:
“Sunday 28 June [Halifax] The people generally remark, as I pass along, how much I am like a man. I think they did it more than usual this evening. At the top of Cunnery Lane, as I went, three men said, as usual, ‘That’s a man’ and one axed [sic] ‘Does your cock stand?’”(1)
Soon began on the erotics last night. Her warmth encouraging…She seemed very affectionate and fond of me. Said I was her only comfort. She would be miserable without me…[I said] ‘This is adultery to all extent and purposes.’ ‘No, no, ‘ said she. Oh, yes, ‘M-. No casuistry can disguise it.’ ‘Not his then, but the other.’ ‘Well,’ said I, choosing to let the thing turn her way. ‘I always considered your marriage legal prostitution. We were both wrong. You to do it and I to consent to it.’… Mary, you have passion like the rest but your caution cheats the world out of its scandal, & your courage is weak rather than your principal [sic] strong…The time, the manner of her marriage. To sink January, 1815, into oblivion! Oh, how it broke the magic of my faith forever.”(2)
…M- came up to me for a few minutes before dinner…We touched on the subject of my figure. The people staring so on Sunday had made her then feel quite low…She knew well enough that I had staid in the house to avoid her being seen with me. .‘Yet,’ said I, ‘taking me altogether, would you have me changed?’ ‘Yes,’ said she, ‘To give you a feminine figure.’…She had just before observed that I was getting mustaches [sic] & that when she first saw this it made her sick.”(3)
I fancy she would sometimes rather be without me. She too much makes me feel the necessity of cutting a good figure in society & that, if I was in the background, she would not be the one to help me forward. She is not exactly the woman of all hours for me. She suits me best at night. In bed she is excellent.”(4)
1. Extract from “I Know My Own Heart: the diaries of Anne Lister”, Helena Whitbread (ed), p.48-9.
2. ibid., p.281-2
3. ibid., p295-6
4. ibid., p303-4
NB. Both books, “I Know My Own Heart” and “No Priest But Love”, edited by Helena Whitbread, are still available to purchase – provided you can find them! You may need to do a bit of surfing on-line. In 2010, the BBC dramatised the diaries under the rather naff (but predictable) title, “The Secret Diaries of Anne Lister”, which featured Maxine Peake as Anne.