ANNE LISTER was a Yorkshire landowner, prolific diarist and enthusiastic traveller. She died on this date. She was also a woman who unapologetically loved women – and is sometimes called the “first modern lesbian” thanks to her self-knowledge and acceptance of her sexual orientation.
Her journal, written partly in code (or “crypt”), details the daily life of an unconventional woman in the early 19th century, including her love affairs and eventual ‘marriage’ to an heiress. Anne penned more than four million words, covering everything from negotiations over the price of her coal (local businessmen would NOT be allowed to get the better of her) to the Queen of Denmark’s birthday party in Copenhagen (quite fun; but no need to ever go again) to her bitter rows with younger sister Marian (“cock of the dunghill”).
Born in 1791, Anne Lister was fiercely intelligent and full of boundless energy. She was very close to her Uncle James and Aunt Anne and frequently stayed with them at Shibden Hall, near Halifax in Yorkshire. This was the Lister ancestral home, and it was to their beloved niece Anne that this childless couple left ownership of Shibden Hall. Her aunt, in particular, seems to have been well aware of Anne’s exclusive interest in the fairer sex – but took it in her stride, becoming one of the most important people in Anne’s life.
Anne Lister was a complicated character. She was considered to have a masculine appearance and stride, and stood out in Halifax thanks to her decision to dress only in black. She deviated from social norms – although she could use her charms and charisma to impress her posh friends when she wished to, working within the social framework of the late Georgian era. She had a passion for human anatomy and science and travel and mountaineering, and a huge appetite for new experiences.
At 23, Anne met ‘M’, or Marianna Belcombe. This was one of the most passionate of all Anne’s affairs, and lasted 16 or 17 years – but despite Anne’s early hopes that they could build a future together, ‘M’ bowed to convention and married a man.
The two wrote frank letters to each other for many years, sharing confidences as well as sharing a bed whenever she visited. But their relationship was also fraught with the pain of their romantic history, and sometimes with jealousy.
‘M’ spent years hoping for her unpleasant husband’s death so that she could reunite properly with Anne. But though ‘M’ was never far away from her thoughts, Anne was looking elsewhere for her “companion” and had also set her sights on a higher-class connection.
In the recent PBS series based on Lister’s life, Gentleman Jack: The Real Anne Lister, Anne Choma writes: “Anne was as determined as she had ever been to find a female life partner. She didn’t feel it was her nature to live alone – the nature which also dictated that settling for a man was never going to be part of the plan.”
In 1832, Anne Lister had an encounter with a wealthy heiress called Ann Walker. It was to change the path of her life.
The two had actually met several times before this point. As a child, Ann Walker had been involved in a carriage accident on Shibden land and had been given a cup of tea at the manor, but this did not evolve into any kind of friendship. In 1822, Anne had written caustically in her diary that young Ann Walker was “a stupid, vulgar girl indeed,” and while the Walker family were wealthy, they did not impress Anne who snobbishly looked down on “new money” gained from trade rather than ancient lineage.
However, after Anne’s return from Hastings, the two women’s paths crossed again.
Lister made it clear early in their relationship that she was after something serious: love, loyalty, and long-term commitment. She wanted Ann Walker to settle down with her, sleep with her, and travel with her. Finally, Ann gave Anne the answer she hoped for. They exchanged rings, they wrote each other into their wills, and then on Easter Sunday 1834 they ‘married’ by taking communion together at a church in York.
Both had a strong Christian faith. While Ann Walker’s lifelong bouts of mental illness had often led her into religious mania and guilt, Anne Lister’s faith gave her a more positive outlook. She had reconciled the way God ‘made her’ with her understanding of the Bible, and Christianity was a source of comfort throughout her life. The two women may not have been legally married, but as Anne Choma writes, “To Anne Lister, their commitment had been solemnized. They had been joined together in the eyes of God.”
Anne Lister died on 22 September 1840, aged 49, of a fever at Koutais (now Kutaisi in Georgia) while travelling with Walker. Walker had Lister’s body embalmed and brought back to the UK, where she was buried in the parish church in Halifax, West Yorkshire, in April 1841. Her tombstone was rediscovered in 2010, having been covered by a floor in 1879.
In her will, Lister’s estate was left to her paternal cousins, but Ann Walker was given a life interest. After being declared insane, Walker spent some years in the care of Dr. Belcombe, and because of her mental state, was unable to make a valid will. She died in 1854 at her childhood home, Cliff Hill in Lightcliffe, West Yorkshire.
More than 40 years after her death, while reporting on a dispute over the ownership of Shibden Hall, the Leeds Times in 1882 stated, “Miss Lister’s masculine singularities of character are still remembered”. Indeed. Yes they are.