Without hesitation, I hopped onto the opportunity to write about Anne Lister, renowned for being “the first modern lesbian” in recorded history.
I was eager to find out more about the woman known for living her truth. In retrospect, I’m sure there were plenty of lesbian women before Lister. Nevertheless, her story paved the way for our modern understanding of lesbians and sexuality.
Who was Anne Lister?
Anne Lister (1791 – 1840) was a wealthy British landowner from Halifax, West Yorkshire. She was deeply unfazed by the misogynistic conventions of 19th century England and lived her life as a successful businesswoman, politician, and avid traveler. She dedicated every day to learning a variety of trades that were typically reserved for men. Women were barred from attending university at the time, but that didn’t stop Anne Lister from learning. As a young adult, she pursued independent medical study with a surgeon she met in Paris. Interestingly, Anne embodied the ideals of so many thriving women in the 21st century.
Throughout her eventful life, she adored women and had several passionate love affairs. Nevertheless, it wasn’t easy to be open about her feelings as not many people understood sexuality as a spectrum. This meant that explicit details of her lesbian relationships were confined to cryptic diary entries that were later decoded by Helena Whitbread, a British writer and historian.
The Anne Lister diaries
It all started when 15-year-old Anne Lister started documenting her life in a series of detailed diary entries. The diaries focus on her experiences and love affairs at Shibden Hall, a massive Turdor-style mansion where she lived between 1791 and 1840. Think of it as a massive country-style cottage.
Even in her teen years, Lister had developed a clear understanding of her sexuality and knew she desired meaningful romantic and sexual relationships with women. Unsurprisingly, her personality was so obsessive that she rarely left out any details in her diary. From dawn until dusk, she wrote about the weather, the lessons she learned at school, her adventures in town, her lamb roast dinners and everything in between. Many teenagers and young adults have been known to come to terms with their sexuality by documenting it in some way. For me personally, it was through a collection of embarrassing Tumblr posts about my adoration for Zayn Malik.
Above all else, Anne dedicated many pages of her diary to writing about the women. One-sixth of the diaries were written in an intricate code language, “cryptahand”. The code is based on a combination of algebra and the Greek alphabet. She used it to write about the steamier moments of her love affairs as she was convinced nobody would ever be able to figure out what she was talking about.
The relationships that changed Anne’s life
The first sexual experience recorded in Anne’s diaries was when she was fifteen. It was with one of her boarding school peers, Eliza Raine, the half-Indian daughter of an English surgeon. The two young women gravitated towards each other because of their mutual wealth and “otherness” (AKA being lesbian in the 19th century). Eventually, they had a passionate love affair right under their teachers’ noses. Anne was enticed by the prospects of sharing Eliza’s wealth. However, once she became more confident about her sexuality, she rejected Eliza and decided to pursue other romantic interests. Who would have thought that young Anne would have so many prospects?
In 1934, Anne met the love of her life, a younger lady by the name of Ann Walker. The two shared a name, a great sum of wealth and the spirit of adventure. As a couple, they traveled through the mountains of Russia and Persia. Their unsurmountable wealth gave them the freedom to go abroad and explore. Although same-sex marriage was not legal in England at the time, the two eventually officiated their relationship by taking communion together on Easter Sunday in 1834. A rainbow plaque honoring Anne Lister was unveiled at Holy Trinity Church in York, February 2019.
What can we learn from Anne?
Anne certainly wasn’t perfect. From an early age, her romantic relationships were driven by her desire to live a life of luxury. However, we have to respect her willingness to explore her sexuality and embrace it no matter what, especially in those times. Let’s not forget that she was also one of the few Georgian era businesswomen to make a fortune during the industrial revolution. After inheriting her childhood home, Shibden Hall, and its many estates, Anne began to trade coal, stone and timber to expand her enterprise. Her economic influence grew and she became heavily involved in the politics of Halifax. Perhaps Anne was the first “Boss Babe” of modern history too.
Her influence transcends time through the drama series Gentleman Jack (2019), a BBC One and HBO co-production that explores her life in 1832. The series title is inspired by the nickname Anne’s neighbors gave her. ‘Gentleman’ refers to her masculine appearance and ‘Jack’ was a term for lesbians at the time. The series received overwhelmingly positive reviews and season 2 is currently being produced in the UK under strict Covid-19 regulations.
Although Anne is a historical icon, I can’t help but question how unique her story actually is. Her coded diaries provide an extraordinary glimpse into the life of a 19th-century lesbian, but it makes me wonder… there has to have been a ton of other Anne Listers out there whose stories were never told. At the end of the day, her social status and wealth made it far more likely for historians to come across her old diaries. If Anne was able to write countless entries about her escapades with various women, there had to have been plenty of sexually fluid women in the first place.
We may never discover of more, but now that I read some of Anne’s diaries, I’ll keep wondering about her silent sisters forever.
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