About Anne Lister

July 9th, 2010

‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.’

When Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813 it is certain that Anne Lister’s reading of that opening sentence would have included herself – and not as the wife

Anne Lister loved women. Born in 1791 to a military family, she later inherited Shibden Hall, two miles outside of Halifax, and knew that she needed a wife. She began courting a wealthy single woman called Ann Walker, gave her a wedding ring, and had their union blessed in church. They had already sworn their love for each other on the Bible in a little thatched summer house on the Shibden estate. When they were married, Ann Walker moved into Shibden Hall and redecorated their bedroom. On Easter Sunday 1834, Anne Walker wrote in her diary – ‘Three xxx’s better to her than to me.’

X does not stand for kiss in the Anne Lister diaries – it records her separate and shared orgasms. As a matter of delicacy, and for her own protection, she only wrote about what she called her ‘amorosos’ in code.

The diaries run to over four million words – three times the length of Samuel Pepys’s – and about one sixth is written in a clever combination of Greek letters and numbers, self-invented by Anne from her teenage years onwards.

That concealment was necessary. Erotic intensity between women was not taken seriously in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries – sometimes it was encouraged as a prelude to marriage, and in any case women often shared a bed, so much so that a husband would not think it odd to vacate the marital bed when a special friend arrived on a visit. Touching and kissing were allowed to be a part of women’s shared vocabulary – what was not allowed was any sense of a woman taking a man’s role. To act like a man was taboo for a woman.

Anne Lister did not really think of herself as acting like a man – simply she wanted to be independent, free-thinking, and crucially, to share her life with another woman. But such a conscious understanding of herself, and her premeditated frank desires towards other woman would – and did- get her into trouble.

The last thing she needed was a nosy relative reading her diary.

She had never been interested in men. Her first lover was a schoolgirl, and her success with both single and married women, makes it clear that she was a women of great charm. She enjoyed lovers in London and Paris, and found no shortage of flirtations in Yorkshire. On her travels she spotted women she liked the look of, and wooed them. Like any other Regency rake, she pursues women and she gets them.

When she inherited the 400 acre Shibden Hall in 1826, Anne Lister was lonely. Her great love-affair with a doctor’s daughter, Mariana Belcombe had ended when Mariane suddenly married a wealthy man. Anne Lister was broken-hearted and disgusted. She wrote of the marriage as legalised prostitution. Yet the two women continued to be lovers for around five years, until Mariane broke off the relationship after a tumultuous weekend in Scarborough. People were beginning to talk…

Anne Lister didn’t care about talk. When she took on local coal-mining interests, and opened her own pit in direct competition with the macho-men of Halifax, effigies of herself and her wife Ann Walker were burnt in the town. Money and class had allowed her to escape too much trouble up till then, but the moment Ann Lister stopped living like a landed, if eccentric, gentlewoman, and starting living like a man – competing openly for wealth, – her sexuality was brutally used against her. Gentleman Jack, they called her. It is to her credit that she did not give up.

That sense of self, and self-awareness, is what makes her modern to us. She was a woman exercising conscious choice. She controlled her cash and her body. At a time when women had to marry, or be looked after by a male relative, and when all their property on marriage passed to their husband, Anne Lister not only dodged the traps of being female, she set up a liaison with another woman that enhanced her own wealth and left both of them free to live as they wished.

The other famous lesbians of the period – the Ladies of Llangollen – Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, had eloped together from Ireland, but lived in a haze of female virtue and deep friendship. Society could overlook the fact of their sexual commitment to each other. Anne Lister was a far more flamboyant, obviously sexual creature supporting the idea of votes for women and taking on men on at their own game. And she enjoyed life. Not for her self-torture.

She died too early, on a tour of Russia, in 1841, leaving her wife to bring home her embalmed remains. It took six months, by ship and by coach for Ann Walker to get the body of her beloved back to Yorkshire.
The diaries went into the attic, and remained there until the early twentieth century, when John Lister, a relative and antiquarian, found them and began to crack the code. Friends urged him to destroy the diaries, because of their content, but he refused, and stuffed them deep into the Shibden archive. They were finally decoded and published by Helena Whitbread in 1988.

edited by helena whitbread

That’s when I read I Know My Own Heart. It is ironic that Anne Lister should re-surface after a hundred and fifty years in 1988, when the Thatcher government passed the infamous Section 28, banning public bodies from ‘promoting’ homosexuality, or, in that hideous phrase, ‘pretended family relationships.’ Whoever came up with that had obviously never read Dickens, where all the real families – those that offer love and attachment and support – are pretend ones in the eyes of convention and the law.
I had written my first novel Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit in 1985. It’s the story of a girl growing up across the Pennines from Anne Lister’s Halifax, in a Lancashire town, and although Anne had money and I did not, and she had privilege and I did not, the struggle to live openly and according to your own heart is much the same stuff.

Oranges won the Whitbread Prize, but I discovered how tough it was to try and live honestly and honourably as a gay woman in Britain. I was trying to talk about books and art, the press just wanted to talk about sex.

I read Anne Lister’s diaries while I working on the BAFTA winning drama of Oranges for the BBC – twenty years old this year, and the first woman- to- woman primetime screen kiss, never mind Brookside.

The diaries gave me courage. I felt connection, not only with Anne Lister, but with the other women who had finally been able to de-code and publish such an important lifestory – important for any woman wanting to make her own choices in the world, regardless of what is or isn’t socially acceptable.
Anne Lister wasn’t necessarily likeable – and that in itself is a lesson for women, who still now, with all our advances and self-definition, like to be liked, especially by men. As Anne Lister said, ‘the intellect has no gender.’

Published in the Radio Times to coincide with the BBC4 drama about Anne Lister