The Secret Diaries of Anne Lister
Anne Lister (1791-1840) lived a most extraordinary and improbable life. She was a beacon of independence in an era when women were considered to be property. She kept a diary all her life that eventually topped out at 6,600 pages (four million words) which is twice the length of Samuel Pepys diaries. These 23 volumes, which can be found at the Halifax Central Library, are an invaluable record, giving the world a peek into what life was like for women in Northern England. The diaries detail her emotions, her day-to-day activities, her financial situation, local and national news, even a daily weather report and the books she was reading. But parts of the diaries were written in a cryptic code of Greek letters and algebraic symbols that concealed aspects of her life that were considered controversial for over a hundred years. Anne’s life was the antithesis of the delicate and refined heroines found in Jane Austen’s novels. Not only was she a shrewd landowner, pioneering industrialist, intrepid traveler, and social climber, but she was also an unabashed lover of women.
‘I love and only love the fairer sex and thus beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any love but theirs.’
Anne was born in Halifax in 1791, the eldest daughter of Jeremy Lister who served as a Captain in the army. The Lister’s were an ancient landowning family that while not rich, was well-to-do and much respected in the West Riding. Since her father was away in the army, Anne and her younger sister Marian spent a great deal of time living with her relatives at Shipden Hall. Anne was a precocious tomboy. She disdained the more feminine pursuits such as embroidery, preferring to riding, walking, shooting, and playing the flute. In 1804, at the age of 13, she was sent to an exclusive boarding school called Manor School in York. It was hoped that her time at the school would turn from a rambunctious tomboy into a refined young lady. Anne, however, proved herself to be a disruptive influence. While other students were attempting to study in class, she would interrupt, keeping up a running stream of patter. Brighter than the other students, she was probably bored, and more interested in socializing than in studying. As a punishment, she was banished to an attic room away from the other girls.
However, Anne wasn’t lonely for long. Another student soon joined her in her attic lair. Her name was Eliza Raine, a young Anglo-Indian heiress from Madras. Soon the two teenagers were declaring themselves husband and wife, exchanging rings and vows. Anne came to terms with her sexuality at an early age. This was not the typical ‘romantic friendship’ that often sprang up between young girls before they went on to get married and have children. These relationships were socially acceptable, and that it would prepare them for marriage. While most young girls eventually grew out of it, some like Anne Lister never did. When Anne and Eliza were caught passing notes in class that left no doubt about the nature of their ‘friendship’ Anne was expelled. Not that she cared; she was more than prepared to continue her education on her own. Her relationship with Eliza however didn’t last. Because of her illegitimacy and mixed race background, Eliza wasn’t considered a suitable companion for Anne.
Anne became determined to find a companion, a life partner, only in her face the partner was female. She was lucky that like Austen’s Emma, her wealth allowed her some measure of freedom to live as she pleased. In 1813, Anne had become the heiress to her uncle’s estate at Shibden Hall after the death of her brother Samuel in a boating accident, she was just 22. By 1815, she had moved permanently to Shibden Hall to learn how to run the estate. Anne had a check list of what she was looking for in a mate, someone who was her social equal but also a feminine, pliable, demure woman. But how to find that life partner was the question. For Anne, church was a convenient place for to find her latest conquest. She would locate what she considered to be a suitable candidate, and then the wooing would commence. First there would be invitations to tea at Shibden Hall, and then long walks through the woods as she furthered the acquaintances. Only after a suitable amount of time had passed, would Anne make her move. In her diaries, Anne talks about her tactics for wooing women, how she would talk to them, charm them. She would mention books that touched upon lesbianism or male homosexuality and then observe the women carefully to see how they reacted. Anne didn’t confine herself to single women, but also married women as well. In all her relationships, Anne was definitely the aggressor, the male of the relationship as it were.
Anne didn’t spend all her time as a female Casanova. In 1830, she became the first woman to ascent Mount Perdu, in the Pyrenees and later completed the first “official” ascent of the Vignemale. She became the first woman to be elected to the Halifax Literary and Philosophical Society, all her life she was fascinated by the latest gadgets and technology. By 1826, her uncle James had passed away and Shibden Hall was now hers. She was soon actively running the estate, carrying out renovations to make the house more livable, creating a wilderness garden and the mere. She managing her tenants, and exerting her influence in local politics. Since as a woman, she couldn’t vote, Anne forced her tenants on her land to vote the way that she wanted. She was called ‘Gentleman Jack’ by her neighbors in Halifax because her appearance grew more masculine as the years went on. Land rich but cash poor, Anne decided to open a coal mine on her property and was soon going up against the big boys, proving that she could hold her own which excited envy as well as fear.
In 1840, Anne Lister died at age 49; of a fever while traveling in Koutais, Georgia while traveling with Walker. Ann Walker had her partner’s body embalmed and brought back to be buried in the Parish Church in Halifax. Although Walker inherited Shibden Hall from her lover, she later died in an insane asylum in 1855 and the estate reverted back to the Lister family. John Lister found Anne’s diaries in the 1890’s. When he had the diaries decoded, he was shocked by their contents. He buried them in the family archives where they remained until the 1930’s when they were re-discovered by Muriel Greene but it wouldn’t be until 1988 that the diaries were considered fit for public consumption and published.
Last year, the BBC aired a 90 minute drama based on Lister's life, called the Secret Diairies of Anne Lister starring Maxine Peake.
Liddington, Jill. Female Fortune: Land, Gender and Authority: The Anne Lister Diaries and Other writings, 1833–36.
Whitbread, Helena. I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister 1791–1840. (Virago, 1988)