Anne Lister – The First Modern Lesbianadmin
Women of York is a wonderful new book on the often unheard of tales of women who have influenced the history of this city in one way or another.
In this article, we’ll look at Anne Lister, who could be described as the first modern lesbian, and her secret lovers.
She was the inspiration for the TV drama series Gentleman Jack.
Discovering Anne’s Diaries
In one of the dark, candle-lit rooms of Shibden Hall, Halifax, John Lister pulled back the old wooden panel to reveal a huge bundle of manuscripts, written in a curious, unintelligible script. The year was 1890 and John Lister could not make out the significance of his discovery. When he looked more closely at the sweeping handwriting, he realised that the documents had been written in some kind of code. Enlisting the help of his schoolteacher friend, Arthur Burrell, together they worked on cracking the cipher, made up of what appeared to be a combination of the Greek alphabet, algebraic symbols and even signs of the zodiac.
After guessing that the final word of a sentence was ‘hope’, they were able to deduce the meaning of the two symbols that represented the letters ‘h’ and ‘e’. With this breakthrough, they were able to eventually crack the code. As the two friends began to decipher the manuscripts, the realisation dawned on them of the enormity of their finding. The thousands of pages were the secret diary of John’s ancestor, Anne Lister, who had kept a journal between the years 1806 to 1839. Begun when Anne was a mere fifteen years old, the documents comprised over four million words.
As John and Arthur read the contents of the diaries, they realised that not only had Anne recorded the details of her daily life, including the running of her estate, as well as references to contemporary national and international events, she had also recorded often in shockingly intimate detail, her many illicit relationships with women. In an era when homosexuality was criminalised, Arthur Burrell urged his friend to burn the diaries in order to avoid an enormous scandal about the secret and extensive love-life of his ancestor, who had died a mere fifty years previously.
And with that, the diaries were returned to their hiding place, not to be discovered again for some time.
Who Was Anne Lister?
Born in 1791, Anne was the second child and eldest daughter of Jeremy Lister, a soldier in the 10th Regiment of Foot who served in the American War of Independence.
One hundred and forty-nine years after Anne’s death, Helen Whitbread was looking for a research project after graduating from university at the age of fifty-two. Intrigued by Anne’s diaries, Helen began the laborious process of cracking the code and transcribing the diaries word for word. The task took a painstaking four years and ended with Anne’s diary taking up twenty-four volumes.
At the age of fourteen, Anne was sent to the Manor School in York, a boarding school for the daughters of élite families.
Anne was a tomboy and it was feared that her rebellious spirit may be a bad influence on the other girls at Manor School. Consequently, she was not allowed to sleep in the communal dormitory. Instead, she was put into the attic room with another girl called Eliza Raine, which is where Anne’s first romance began.
Thrown together by chance, the two fifteen-year-olds embarked on a secret and passionate affair. They corresponded with each other over the summer and Eliza visited Shibden. When Eliza left, it is then that Anne wrote her first ever entry into her diary.
As Anne grew into the York social scene in the early 1800s, relationships were cultivated with other women alongside Eliza.
Anne enjoyed a relationship with Isabella Norcliffe of Langton Hall near Malton. Isabella wanted to become Anne’s life-partner, but Anne rejected her. It was a bitter disappointment to Isabella who remained single all her life, dying in 1846 at the age of sixty-one.
Although Anne had to keep her lesbian identity secret, this did not prevent her from being promiscuous. As Arthur Burrell noted after he had helped her ancestor, Thomas Lister, to decipher some of the diaries, ‘hardly any of them escaped her’. Anne could be charming and persuasive when she wanted to be, and she cunningly developed strategies to seduce the women who she was attracted to.
When she wanted to test the water to find out if a woman was open to a lesbian relationship, she would make an allusion to homosexuality in ancient Greek literature, such as the poetess Sappho. She would then observe the reaction of the woman who she was interested in. She would sometimes ‘accidentally’ touch them and flirt. Anne had such an ability to charm and woo that it is possible that she tried to seduce Isabella Norcliffe’s three sisters as well.
Later, Anne met the love of her life, Mariana Belcombe. The daughter of Dr Belcome, they met in at the Norcliffe’s family home in 1812 when Anne was twenty-three and Mariana was twenty-two.
However, Anne’s dream of a life-long companionship with Mariana would never be realised. When Mariana broke the news to Anne that she wanted to marry Charles Lawton, a wealthy landowner much older than herself, Anne begged her on her knees not to do it. Leaving Anne heartbroken, Mariana went ahead with the wedding at St Michel Le Belfrey church, York, in March 1816.
Nevertheless, Anne remained confident the older Charles would die much sooner than Mariana and would leave an opportunity open for them to live in the same household. However, Anne would die before Charles, with her plans coming to nothing.
Although Anne had to be discreet about her relationships with women, it did not stop gossip about her.
When walking around Halifax and the surrounding countryside, men would sometimes jeer at her and call her names, most famously ‘Gentleman Jack’.
The term ‘lesbian’ was not coined until 1890 and it seems that Anne was able to conceal her sexuality because to many people she was an eccentric enigma.
Anne was an extraordinary woman, who despite a sexuality that could have led to her being ostracised, was fearless in her determination to run her affairs well in a male-dominated world. One evening when she was walking home alone over the fields she was assaulted by a man who tried to put his hand up her skirt. She beat him off with her walking stick.
Women of York
Discover more about Anne Lister and her secret lovers, and many other fascinating women from the history of York, in this new book by Claire Shaw.
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