Mar 262016

It is 1791 and Anne Lister is born into a Halifax, Yorkshire family where English life for most people was a daily struggle.  Transportation was by horse and carriage.  Anne was fortunate to belong to a family that had sufficient wealth.  Yet, she could have adopted an upper-class life of silence and had lovers in a discreet manner.  Anne decided to life a truthful life and to honour and enjoy her life as a lesbian.

Anne Lister wrote 24 volumes of dairies and they are the earliest known non-fiction and first-hand account of lesbian sexuality.  In 2011 the dairies took their rightful place alongside the diaries of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn thanks to the Unesco Memory of the World.   The volumes also give an insight into the joys and trials of everyday family life.

The Code of Lesbian Sexuality

Anne used a code (described as a combination of ancient Greek and algebra) to write about her lesbian conquests and sexual experiences. The algebraic symbols were certainly important when Anne wrote about an extremely exciting orgasm she had experienced.  Her mother would have never approved!

The Butch Appearance

Anne had a masculine appearance and was demeaned and criticized for it and called “Gentleman Jack” in a sarcastic manner.  This did not deter Anne and she lived confidently as an open lesbian. In fact, she had many lovers and ‘married’ a woman.

Living a Lesbian Life

At an elite school, Anne, aged 14, met Eliza Raine of Anglo-Indian parents.  They were so in love that they intended to live together until the end of their lives.  Anne began to keep a diary.  Five years later, Anne now 19, met Isabella Norcliffe a woman of 24 years. ( Eliza unfortunately suffered a nervous breakdown and Anne paid for her treatments until she died at age sixty-nine.)  Anne learned much and became a lover of Isabella, but she was not to be considered a life-long partner.

This Time Anne is Jilted

Anne met Marianna Lawton the daughter of the doctor that treated her lover Eliza Raine).

Marianna Lawton was the daughter of Dr Belcombe, ( the same physician who treated Eliza Raine). She and Anne first met at a house-party at the Langton Hall home of the Norcliffe family in 1812. Anne was immediately passionately attracted to Marianna and just like she had with Eliza Raine the two women vowed to spend their lives together. Unfortunately convention proved too much for Marianna who on 9th March 1816, married Charles Lawton, a wealthy Cheshire landowner a man much older than herself and became mistress of Lawton Hall. Although the two women carried on their clandestine relationship for a number of years, (with her husband’s permission) their hopes of eventually being together were never realised and Anne had other affairs. Marianna outlived Anne Lister and died at her sister’s home in London at the age of seventy-eight. Anne is described as having a “masculine appearance”, Marianna was originally reluctant to be seen in public with Anne, as her manly looks were often commented on. She took to dressing entirely in black and engaged in activities that were not perceived as the norm for gentlewomen, such as opening and owning a colliery. Marianna’s pet name for Anne was “Fred”.

In 1832, Anne Lister, disillusioned by her attempts to find a titled woman with whom to share her life, began courting Ann Walker, this was a story of much local gossip, and her eventual marriage (of course without legal recognition) to Walker in 1834 was remarkable. Rings were exchanged, then on Easter Sunday, the two women attended ancient Goodramgate church, just behind York Minster. They stayed for the sacrament, and Anne Lister recorded in her diary: “The first time I ever joined Miss Walker in my prayers – I had prayed that our union might be happy”. The two women lived together at Shibden Hall in September after the ceremony.

Ann Walker was the younger daughter of John Walker, a wealthy woollen manufacturer who owned properties near to Shibden Hall. On the deaths of both her parents in 1823, Ann Walker, aged only nineteen years old, inherited a considerable fortune and in 1830, due to the premature death of her brother, John, she became an even richer heiress.

Anne Lister inherited the family estate, from her uncle James Lister, Shibden Hall in 1826, and from this it drew a reasonable income (some of it from tenants).She renovated Shibden Hall quite significantly to her own design. In 1838 she added a Gothic tower to the main house, which she used as her private library, this along with the waterfall, the lake, and a tunnel, for the servants to pass back and forth without being seen, (all paid for with her “wife’s money” Ann Walker).

Being a highly adventurous woman, Anne Lister set her sights on travelling abroad, of course with her “wife” by her side, while travelling in France, Lister was the first woman to ascend Mont Perdu in the Pyrenees. In 1838, she came back to the Pyrenees with Walker and completed the first “official” ascent of the Vignemale .In France she was remembered for this event, rather than her unconventional lifestyle.
Sadly Anne Lister died aged 49 of a fever at Koutais (now Kutaisi, Georgia, Russia) while travelling with Ann Walker in 1840. Walker, had Lister’s body embalmed and brought back to the UK, where she is buried in the parish church in Halifax, West Yorkshire. As Lister’s spouse she should legally have been granted ownership of Shibden Hall, she continued to live at Shibden Hall until mental illness rendered her incapable of running her estates. In 1843 she was placed in a private York asylum run by Dr Stephen Belcombe, Marianna Lawton’s brother. Later, she was transferred back to Shibden and then to her original home at Cliff Hill, Lightcliffe, where she died at the age of fifty-one .

Anne’s descendant John Lister discovered her diaries in the late 19th century, he managed to decode some of the passages and managed to transcribe some of the coded portions. A horrified friend urged him to destroy the volumes, for fear that his own reputation would be destroyed by the hint of a hereditary taint of homosexuality, John agreed that he would not make the diaries public. But he could not bring himself to destroy documents of such historical significance. Instead, he hid them away behind the wall in his library to await a time when Anne Lister’s diaries could be made public and appreciated by an eager and amazed public.

The diaries were published in two volumes (one in 1988 and one in 1992) by Helena Whitbread . A biography by Jill Liddington appeared in 1994.

In 2010, a production based on Anne Lister’s life, The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, aired on BBC2 starring Maxine Peake as Lister. Revealing Anne Lister, a documentary featuring Sue Perkins, was broadcast on 31 May 2010 on BBC Two.

Both were extremely enjoyable and highly informative.

 Leave a Reply