the first modern lesbian
Regency era England is often regarded as a world of fluttery Jane Austen-types, high tea and button-down sexuality. However, the fascinating and largely unknown figure of Anne Lister, and her extensively juicy diaries, pry open a very different account of the times.
Watching the recent BBC telemovie based on Lister’s life, The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, it struck me that there seemed to be an inordinate quota of lesbians living within a rather small slice of early 19th Century Yorkshire countryside. Picking-up at church and getting off in the bushes is depicted as a regularity. I first considered this a sort of warped contemporary imagining of Regent era sexuality, yet upon some research, it appears Anne Lister’s story is, incredibly, true, and the filmmakers were afforded the luxury of a vast amount of source material to draw from.
Lister’s diaries, spanning over 34 years and four million words, have been dubbed the Rosetta Stone of lesbian history. Along with musings about the weather and money troubles, she documented fervently her intimacies with other women, the latter part of which she disguised in an elaborate, self-formulated code. After her death these documents were hidden and deliberately suppressed, decoded by a relative in the 1890s, yet not fully published until the 1980s.
Staunch in her independence, Anne adorned herself entirely in black, was wildly intellectual, and determined to assert her position in the far-from-lady-like business of coal mining. Interestingly, she may have occasionally drawn a few funny looks and been the subject of mild, tutting gossip at tea parties, but Lister managed to live relatively free from persecution for her perceived peculiar lifestyle. This was probably in part due to her unassailable position of family wealth and respectability. At 35 she solidified her stance among the landed gentry, inheriting a large Yorkshire manor named Shibden Hall, and found herself possessing a relatively unusual amount of power for a woman to hold.
Details of her lesbian intimacies contained within Anne’s diaries date back to her early teenage days, at boarding school. Upon moving back to Shibden she instigated several other relationships with women and proved a rather skilled seductress, with an almost smug self-assurance: “Yet my manners are certainly peculiar, not all masculine but rather softly gentleman-like. I know how to please this fair maiden of mine”, she wrote in 1820. Her relationship with Marianna Lawton, who Anne loved intensely, was most notable, lasting for over a decade. Tragically for Anne, Marianna decided to move away and marry a man of great wealth. Yet for many years after this, the women continued to see each other, arranging surreptitious hotel room meetings.
In light of Anne’s diaries it can be suggested that there may have been a higher than expected number of women who self-identified – if only covertly – as same-sex attracted in Regency England. However, as the conventions of the era denied women the means for financial independence, it was much easier to resort to finding a wealthy husband, than to fight for the right to lead an atypical lifestyle.
Anne Lister enjoyed a final companionship with a Yorkshire lady in a similar position of inherited fortune, Miss Anne Walker, and the pair lived in an arrangement that was essentially a marriage. In 1834 they visited a church, asking the priest to perform a ceremony in which they exchanged rings and commemorated their love for each other. Whether they told the priest the weight of what they were doing is dubious, however it is interesting to imagine same-sex marriage occurring almost 200 years ago.
Miss Lister attracted some unkind attention when she started to become a serious competitor in the coal mining business, and her male rivals agitated by her success, began to provoke rumours about the nature of her private life. However, it is arguable that they weren’t necessarily offended by her sexuality, but merely by the fact she was a woman intent on filling a traditionally male role. Either way, her unflinching quest to live at odds with societal norms, sanctions Anne Lister as a fascinating historical figure both from queer and feminist standpoints.
In their later years Miss Lister and Miss Walker became keen mountaineers, voyaging on many abroad adventures. At the age of 49, whilst travelling through thick Eastern European snow, Anne caught a fever, which proved fatal. Miss Walker was left with the arduous task of returning her lover’s body to England, a journey that took more than six months to complete.
In the 1890s, John Lister, a relative of Anne’s who now lived at Shibden Hall, discovered and decoded her diaries, shocked at what he read. By coincidence, he was homosexual himself, and ironically the 1890s were an era that was less progressively accepting of homosexuality than Anne’s era. Thus, John Lister feared public scrutiny would turn upon himself if he released the diaries. Urged to burn them by a friend, Lister instead chose to bury the books deep within the bowels of the Shibden Hall library. They would again be discovered, in the 1930s and 1960s respectively, yet these later discoverers were also made anxious by the lascivious nature of what they found and they were not published. It wasn’t until 1988 that Helena Whitbread managed to fully translate and finally publish Lister’s diaries. When they were first released, detractors claimed that their graphic detailing of lesbian sexuality was surely a hoax, yet supporting documentary evidence soon refuted these claims.
Anne Lister’s significance as a self-conscious, self-accepting homosexual woman in a staunchly tradition-bound time is a remarkable story, and has gained her the title of first modern lesbian. We should consider ourselves lucky that we live in an era that is fascinated by Anne’s story, rather than horrified by it. However, we may also lament the fact that we are still shrugging off the political weight that denies certain rights to people on the basis of their sexuality. Hence, the thought of a same-sex marriage occurring in 1834 seems quite extraordinary, and the very existence of Anne Lister rips to shreds the genteel petticoat that is modern society’s ideas of the Regency period.