A Yorkshire Lady of Renown: Celebrating Anne Lister

Anne Lister’s lesbian relationships remained hidden for nearly 150 years after her death, but today the secrets of her life are openly embraced by contemporary audiences.

By Sadie MacDonald

We often describe certain historical figures as being “ahead of their time.” For those whose secrets survive to be acknowledged by modern scholarship, celebrating them can provide a second chance at validation and acceptance. This certainly is the case with Anne Lister.

Lister was born in 1791 to the landowning family of Shibden Hall in Halifax, England. Known as an eccentric figure during her lifetime, today Lister is called “the first modern lesbian.” Throughout her life she had relationships exclusively with women such as Mariana Lawton, Isabella Norcliffe, and Ann Walker. Lister considered herself married to Walker after they took communion together during mass.

This knowledge about Lister almost remained completely obscure.

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Portrait of Anne Lister by Joshua Horner, ca. 1830. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Throughout her adulthood, Lister kept a diary, portions of which were written in a code devised by Lister herself. Nearly sixty years after her death, her relative John Lister cracked the code with the assistance of Arthur Burrell. As Helena Whitbread writes, “What they found was, to them, so disturbing that Burrell thought they ought to burn the journals immediately.” John Lister hid the diaries behind a panel in Shibden Hall, which fell into the hands of the city of Halifax after his death in 1933. Few researchers read the journals over the next several decades, and those who did concealed what the writing revealed about Anne Lister’s sexuality. We can thank scholar Helena Whitbread for making the full extent of the diaries’ lesbian content widely known to the public in 1988.

It’s fortunate that the diaries survived. Through her journals, readers can understand Lister on a deeper level of intimacy. Lister wrote about her relationships with women such as Mariana Lawton, and described how she altered her clothes to be more masculine. Many historians hesitate to ascribe LGBTQ2S identities to historical figures. There is no such debate when it comes to Anne Lister, as her writing is explicitly clear that she had romantic, sexual relationships with women.

For example, Anne frequently writes of sharing a “kiss” with various women. She ascribes sexual meaning to this term, as she once wrote about how she had “A kiss of Tib [Isabella Norcliffe], both last night & this morning… but she cannot give me much pleasure… my heart is M––’s [Mariana Lawton] & I can only feel real pleasure with her.”

Passages such as these, which prove that Lister’s relationships with women were romantic and sexual, were written in code. Lister was aware that she was unusual for her time, and understood that aspects of herself must remain hidden.

Lister’s life certainly is not hidden now. Folk duo O’Hooley & Tidow released a song about her in 2012, and in 2019 the television series Gentleman Jack premiered on HBO. Created by Sally Wainwright and starring Suranne Jones, it focuses on Lister’s life in the 1830s and her relationship with Ann Walker. Check it out if you’re in need of a binge watch these days!

The series makes frequent use of fourth wall breaks, an unusual device to see in a period drama. Anne Lister addresses the audience directly and explains her thoughts, often quoting passages from her diary. She also glances at the audience knowingly in scenes where she is making progress in her relationship with Ann Walker. We as viewers are in on the joke, and her secrets.

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Anne knows we know what’s going on. Photo: thought-i-to-myself.tumblr.com

It’s impossible to know whether Lister would have approved of her inner life being exposed in this way. She wrote in code for a reason, and in Gentleman Jack her words are openly directed at an audience. I like to think of it as though the viewers themselves are acting as her diary. For contemporary audiences, there is no need to hide the truth of Anne Lister’s life anymore.

As Sappho, another historical lesbian, once said, “Someone will remember us I say, even in another time.” Gentleman Jack shows that Anne Lister can finally exist in a time where her true self can be embraced.

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A blue plaque with a rainbow border commemorating Anne Lister. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

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