Thursday, 2 February 2012

Knowing Your Own Heart

Reading the diaries of Anne Lister
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)
Anne was in no doubt about her sexual orientation.  The diaries are full of accounts of her passions for other women – and her frustration when the objects of her desire prefer marriage to a more unconventional life with Anne.  The woman who vexed her most and with whom she had a long and complex relationship, was Marianne Lawton (née Belcombe), referred to as ‘M-’ in the journals.  Anne enjoyed a friendship and sexual liaison for a number of years, before Marianne married a rich, old widower called Charles Lawton.  Anne hoped that the old man would die soon after the marriage (perhaps after impregnating her lover) and the two women would live happily ever after, combining both fortunes and families.  Unfortunately, things did not quite work out that way.  Four years later, he was still alive and Marianne’s ardour (for Anne) seemed to have somewhat cooled.  Although the women continued to have clandestine meetings with each other, in an entry dated 17 July 1822, Anne describes how low and melancholy she feels because Marianne does not even want to conjecture on how much longer the couple would have to wait before her husband’s demise.
Matters came to a head to some extent in August 1822, when Anne’s frustration seemed to boil after an unhappy night with Marianne:
Wednesday 20 August [Halifax]
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)
Anne’s suspicion that Marianne’s feelings towards her were cooling were not helped by ‘M-’s’ behaviour when they were together in public.  Anne did not have a very ‘feminine’ figure and this, coupled with the clothes she wore, used to attract the stares of others in their circle:
Tuesday 16 September [Scarborough]
…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)
Anne is now 32, and realises that she could end up a lonely woman if she does not find a worthy companion:  the dream of a life with Marianne seems no longer viable:
Sunday 28 September [York]
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)
It took another two years before Anne finally accepted – during an extended visit to Paris – that she and Marianne would never have a life together , but they still continued to see each other, on and off, for at least another 10 years.  However, by 1833, at the age of 41, Anne had renewed an acquaintance with Ann Walker, another heiress whose land neighboured that of Shibden. The women eventually decided to exchange vows and rings, and live together,  and Ann Walker remained Anne’s companion until 1840, when Anne died of fever during a trip to Georgia.
Anne Lister’s diaries make absorbing reading for a number of reasons: they describe everyday life in early 19th century Yorkshire in fascinating detail, they chronicle Anne’s travels to various parts of the world, and they also clearly illustrate the passion that Anne felt for other women and the frustration she felt when her passions were not always reciprocated.  It is that final element which ultimately, I think, is the most moving. Anne and Marianne are clearly very much in love with each other but the romance is doomed because one of the women is not prepared to give up her (heterosexual) privileges and so, as Anne herself put it, Marianne ‘cheats the world out of its scandal’ (and Anne out of a life of happiness).  It is a story, I suspect, which still resonates with some lesbians today. Maybe that is why Anne is sometimes described as ‘the first modern lesbian’?

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.

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