Anne Lister: an enigma unto herself

Dressing extravagantly, writing about her lesbian affairs in code and learning the classics, Anne Lister was an 18th century trailblazer

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“I know my own heart and I know men. I am not made like any other I have seen. I dare believe myself to be different from any others who exist,” wrote Anne Lister in August 1823.

Then 32, Halifax’s now most famous daughter had long been comfortable with herself and her sexuality. Born in 1791 she grew into an “unmanageable tomboy” whose exasperated mother sent her to boarding school at the age of seven, where teachers confined her to an attic bedroom in the fear that she would influence the other girls.

In 1826 Lister took charge of family estate Shibden Hall, and drew a reasonable income – some of it from tenants. Her wealth allowed her some measure of freedom to live as she pleased, and she travelled extensively through France, Switzerland and northern Italy – becoming the first woman to climb several peaks in the Pyrenees.

Lister unashamedly defied social standards of the early 19th century, pursuing relationships with women and dressing in all black when fashion dictated young, unmarried women wore white. Her masculine appearance and eccentric behaviour earned her the nickname Gentleman Jack. It was this title the BBC chose for its acclaimed TV series on Lister’s life starring Suranne Jones in the lead role.

Since the show aired last year Lister’s life has been brought to the wider public attention, but to historian and author Helena Whitbread Lister has long been a source of fascination.

“She was indomitable,” says Whitbread. “Granted, she had the money and the status to live her life as she wanted to live it, but in an era when there were no support groups, there was no language to describe sex between women. The word ‘lesbian’ wasn’t known, for instance. She really thought that she was unique. Her mantra was: ‘I am an enigma, even unto myself, and I do excite my own curiosity.’ She thought there was no one like her in the world.

Lister was determined to learn and do everything a man was able to. But she was no trailblazer when it came to women’s rights

“Her [other] mantra, and one to which she remained faithful until the end of her life, was: ‘I love and only love the fairer sex and thus beloved by them in turn. My heart revolts from any other love but theirs.’ And there are these wonderful affirmations of her belief in her own sexuality. She could reconcile it with her Christianity because she would say God made me, and it’s the nature I’ve been given, and to act in any way against it would be more of a sin than living my
life in accordance with the nature God has given me.”

When Whitbread came across Lister’s diaries in 1983 the truth about her extraordinary life was relatively unknown. By the time she died after contracting a fever in Georgia in 1840 Lister had left behind 7,700 pages – four million words – of diary entries, written in a mixture of what she called her “crypt hand” – a secret code she devised from Greek and Latin, mathematical symbols, punctuation and the zodiac – and what she called “plain hand”.

The code had been cracked by Lister’s distant cousin John Lister and his friend Arthur Burrell some time between 1887 and 1892. But when the pair discovered her lesbianism her cousin was horrified and Burrell tried to persuade him to burn the diaries.

Luckily he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Instead, he hid the diaries behind a panel on Shibden Hall’s first floor, and they were rediscovered years later when the Lister family donated their ancestral home to Calderdale Council.

When a recently graduated Whitbread headed to her local archives in search of a story to write about, she soon realised she’d struck gold.

“I’d heard about Anne Lister, that she lived at Shibden Hall, and I’d visited Shibden Hall in my childhood and I’d taken my own children there, but I didn’t know anything else about her,” she says.

Whitbread took the first 50 pages of Lister’s journal home, along with the key to decipher the code.

“It began to gradually dawn on me that she was writing in code to hide her love affairs with other women and I thought, this is really astounding in that day and age for a lesbian to write, even in code, so freely about her sexual life, so of course I had to go on and find out more.”

Whitbread got to know every intricate detail about Lister’s life. Lister’s heartbreak was palpable when the love of her life, Mariana Belcombe, married a much older man for money.

“She saw it as a defection,” she says. “They’d been lovers from around 1812 to 1816, when this rich man came and offered his hand to Mariana.”

Lister and Belcombe carried on their love affair after Belcombe got married, but Whitbread says she sees Lister becoming more “cynical and opportunistic” after realising she could not marry the love of her life.

“She thought: ‘If I can’t have Mariana I shall seek a woman with money and a title.’ She wanted to get up into the aristocracy, but all her plans to do that didn’t come to fruition.

“She travelled and met women in the aristocracy but she quickly realised that she wasn’t rich enough to attract any of them. They began to use her a bit as a companion to travel abroad with, and she found herself paying for carriages. So she thought to herself, as she put it: ‘I have been an Icarus, but I have not been so badly burnt and I have not fallen so heavily. I shall go home and find myself a wife.’”

And that’s what she did, returning to Halifax, where she started a relationship with Ann Walker, a neighbouring heiress. The pair took communion together at mass on Easter Sunday in 1834 in Holy Trinity Church, Goodramgate, York, and thereafter considered themselves married. The church has been described as “an icon for what is interpreted as the site of the first lesbian marriage to be held in Britain”, and the building now hosts a commemorative blue plaque.

But the union was not a happy one. The women were completely different – Lister, a staunch conservative, assertively ruled her estate and became embroiled in local politics, while her new wife often felt neglected.

Shibden Hall, mid-renovation, resembled a building site. Walker, whose wealth was largely funding the work, became increasingly “hysterical” about the cost, and Lister drew criticism from townspeople after using Walker’s money to enter the coal mining industry – sinking two pits of her own rather than allowing her land to be leased by others.

“They burnt effigies of her and Ann Walker in town,” says Whitbread. “There were strong feelings against them. It was a very masculine career move, but that was part of her nature. She was a very astute businesswoman and the men who ran the local coal industry soon learned she possessed a shrewd business brain.”

Lister educated herself with abandon, immersing herself in the classics, algebra, maths, Greek, French, astronomy, geology and philosophy at a time when women were barred from universities. She was determined to learn and do everything a man was able to. Yet Whitbread points out she was no trailblazer when it came to women’s rights.

“She didn’t think women should be very highly educated, particularly in the classics. She said it would draw a curtain aside which it is better for them not to peep behind,” says Whitbread. “Of course she meant all the sexuality in the classical texts she read. She also didn’t think votes for women were a good idea unless they were women of property – which meant herself of course.”

The author Emma Donoghue describes Lister’s diaries as “the Dead Sea Scrolls of lesbian history”. To Whitbread they are a testament to a life lived in truth.

She says: “What she has left for us and generations to come is her fearlessness and bravery in staying true to her sexual nature and having courage. She was an original.”

Helena Whitbread’s two books, The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister: Volumes 1 and 2 (Virago), are out now 

The Gentleman Jack effect

Since Sally Wainwright’s acclaimed BBC drama aired last year Calderdale has benefited from a surge in visitors. Visitor numbers at Shibden Hall have exceeded all previous records – in August 2019 , there were 14,419 visitors, compared with 2,579 in August 2018, while visits to Bankfield Museum in Halifax, where costumes are on display from Gentleman Jack, have trebled.

Bobsie Robinson, cultural services manager at Calderdale Council, says: “Anne Lister and Gentleman Jack have taken us into another level. We have a lot of energy and enthusiasm to do great things around all things Anne Lister and Gentleman Jack.

“It has been absolutely amazing to see the increase in visitor numbers, not just at Shibden Hall but also at our other venues. We’ve had an increase in overnight stays, the restaurants – it’s just been non stop. We are the home of Anne Lister and we are proud of that. We have a lot to thank her for.”

However, a 10-day celebration of Lister’s birthday due to start next week – including tours of Shibden Hall – has been cancelled due to the Coronavirus.

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