Anne Lister, the 19th century modern lesbian
For a 19th century woman, Anne Lister could be considered a modern lesbian, living an independent life and seeking the love of other women regardless of other people’s opinion.
It did help that she was the heir of her own hall. Given that her era was one where women were considered as property, that’s saying a lot.
What’s more, thanks to 23 volumes of her diaries, some of it in code to hide her relationships, we’re able to get a look at her life as landowner, industrialist, world traveler, and a lover of woman.
“Anne was a complicated person and really just a fascinating character,” said Claire Selby, curator of Social History for Calderdale Museums based at Shibden Hall
Anne Lister: Growing up as a tomboy
Born in 1791 in Halifax, Anne was the eldest daughter of Jeremy Lister, an army captain, who came from a well-to-do landowning family in West Riding.
With her father away for most of the time, Anne spent a lot of time with relatives at Shibden Hall where she grew up as a tomboy and learned how to ride, shoot, and play the flute.
She was sent to the exclusive Manor boarding school in York at age 13 to turn her into a refined young lady. But she was a disruptive influence, too bright for the other students and too bored in class.
As punishment, she was sent to live in an attic room. It was there she met her first love, Eliza Raine, an Anglo-Indian heiress from Madras.
The two soon declared themselves as husband and wife complete with rings and vows. This was more than the typical ‘romantic friendship’ as Anne was soon expelled from school because of it.
Unfortunately, because of Eliza’s illegitimacy and mixed race background, she wasn’t considered a good enough companion for Anne and their relationship didn’t last.
Anne Lister: Looking for love
Anne soon became the heiress to her uncle James’ estate at Shibden Hall at the age of 22, after her brother Samuel died in an accident.
She moved into the hall in 1815 and learned how to run the estate. But even before then, she had decided that she wanted a life partner who was female.
“I love and only love the fairer sex and thus beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any love but theirs,” Anne wrote.
She documented in her diary how she wooed other women: not only single women but even married women also, usually a social equal but more feminine, a demure woman. She would look in churches, and invite them to tea at the hall.
It was in 1812 Anne met her love of her life named Marianne Belcombe. Unfortunately, Marianne married a local landowner, Charles Lawton, in 1815 that left Anne devastated.
Though the two continued to see each other after, Marianne left Anne because she didn’t want to be seen with her in public because of the latter’s masculine look.
Anne Lister: An extraordinary life
While looking for love, Anne carved a life of her own. In 1830, she became the first woman to climb Mount Perdu in the Pyrenees and then later climbed the Vignemale.
When her uncle James died in 1826, Shibden Hall became hers. She managed running the estate, making renovations and creating a garden.
Anne also influenced local politics. But because she couldn’t vote as a woman, she forced her tenants to vote her way.
She opened a coal mine on her property because she needed the cash. This made her the target of envy and fear among her neighbors.
As time went by, her appearance became more masculine and her neighbors started calling her ‘Gentleman Jack.’
Anne Lister: An heiress for Shibden
in 1832, Anne finally found her life companion in her neighbor, Ann Walker, who was half her age. In 1834, the two found a clergyman to bless their union and Ann moved into Shibden Hall.
Anne wrote in her diary on Easter Sunday of that year: “Three xxx’s better to her than to me.” These Xs were the separate and shared orgasms, what she called her ‘amorosos’ in code.
Sadly, Anne died of an illness at the age of 49 while traveling with Ann in Koutais, Georgia. Ann brought Anne’s embalmed body back and buried her in the parish church in Halifax.
Anne later died in an asylum in 1855 and the estate reverted back to the Lister family. When Jon Lister found Anne’s diaries in 1890s, he had it decoded and discovered Anne’s secret.
He had the diaries buried in the family archives where they were discovered by Muriel Greene in the 1930s. However, it was only in 1988 when the diaries were published.