The Very Lesbian Life of Miss Anne Lister

click for other "the way we were" posts

June is LGBT Pride Month, so we’re celebrating all of our pride by feeding babies to lions! Just kidding, we’re talking about lesbian history, loosely defined as anything that happened in the 20th century or earlier, ’cause shit changes fast in these parts. We’re calling it The Way We Were, and we think you’re gonna like it. For a full index of all “The Way We Were” posts, click that graphic to the right there.

Previously:

1. Call For Submissions, by The Editors
2. Portraits of Lesbian Writers, 1987-1989, by Riese
3. The Way We Were Spotlight: Vita Sackville-West, by Sawyer
4. The Unaccountable Life of Charlie Brown, by Jemima
5. Read a F*cking Book: “Odd Girls & Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in 20th-Century America”, by Riese
6. Before “The L Word,” There Was Lesbian Pulp Fiction, by Brittani
7. 20 Lesbian Slang Terms You’ve Never Heard Before, by Riese
8. Grrls Grrls Grrls: What I Learned From Riot, by Katrina
9. In 1973, Pamela Learned That Posing in Drag With A Topless Woman Is Forever, by Gabrielle
1016 Vintage “Gay” Advertisements That Are Funny Now That “Gay” Means “GAY”, by Tinkerbell
11. Trials and Titillation in Toronto: A Virtual Tour of the Canadian Lesbian & Gay Archives, by Chandra
12. Ann Bannon, Queen of Lesbian Pulp Fiction: The Autostraddle Interview, by Carolyn
13. 15 Ways To Spot a Lesbian According To Some Very Old Medical Journals, by Tinkerbell
14. The Very Lesbian Life of Miss Anne Lister, by Laura L
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Many of you might know of Miss Anne Lister and may have seen the horrible movie on the BBC a few years ago, but the primary source material from her journals is some of the most hilarious gay romantic angst I have every read. Anne Lister, also known as ‘Gentleman Jack’, was an out lesbian aristocrat in Yorkshire in the early 1800s. She owned land, was an active and respected member of the business community and eventually got “married” to a woman–she was even able to pass on her sizeable estate to her wife when she died. Her diaries reveal that she had a whole slew of lesbian affairs, delighted in seducing young women and showing off her exploits, all whilst remaining an active member of society.

In 1988 historian Helena Whitbread shocked the academic world by publishing the first volume of The Diaries of Miss Anne Lister. These diaries revealed a frank and graphic depiction of active, open lesbian life in the early 1800s. They were so graphic that they were considered a hoax until a great deal of evidence proved their authenticity. If you have some free time you can view the primary source material for free on the History to Herstory Archive. I give you below a selection of the extremely gay life of Miss Anne Lister, a contemporary of Jane Austen and a precursor to Shane McCutcheon.

12 Excerpts From a Very Gay Life

1. Only Loves the Fairer Sex

Monday 29 January 1821 [Halifax]
Arranging & putting away my last year’s letters. Looked over & burnt several very old ones from indifferent people … Burnt … Mr Montagu’s farewell verses that no trace of any man’s admiration may remain. It is not meet for me. I love, & only love, the fairer sex & thus beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any other love than theirs.

Saturday 12 July 1823 [Halifax]
Could not sleep last night. Dozing, hot & disturbed … a violent longing for a female companion came over me. Never remember feeling it so painfully before … It was absolute pain to me.

2. A Day in the Life

Sunday 14 September 1823 [Scarborough]
M- & I went out at 4 & sauntered on the sands to the Spa & beyond it till near 5. Met the girls coming to say dinner was ready. Sat down to dinner at 5. In the evening, from 6-3/4 to 8, M- & Lou & little Charles Milne & I sauntered along the North sands as far as Scorby Mill. Darkish when we got back. Meaning to go to bed soon, came up to my dressing room at 9.50… Perhaps about 12-1/2 every door & window in the house seemed to rattle, which disturbed us exceedingly. At Ist, we thought someone [was] breaking into the house but the continuance of the noises & the pattering of rain soon ushered in a tremendous thunder storm. Very vivid, fast-succeeding flashes of lightning enlightened the whole room. After some time came 1 or 2 tremendous peals of thunder & the heaviest rain I almost ever heard. In the midst of all this, we drew close together, made love & had one of the most delightfully long, tender kisses we have ever had. Said she, in the midst of it, ‘Oh, don’t leave me yet.’ This renewed & redoubled my feelings & we slept in each other’s arms.

M– is Marianna Belcombe Lawton, the first woman Anne Lister married in a church in 1821. Lawton would later marry Charles Lawton, breaking Anne’s heart and subsequently giving her venereal disease through their continued affair. Anne later marries Anne Walker in 1834, who was with her until her death in 1840.

3. Gaydar in 1824

November 1824
She begins to stand closer to me. I might easily press queer to queer. Our liking each other is now mutually understood and acknowledged.

Queer = Vag

October 1824
I have a question to ask you. ‘Êtes-vous Achilles?’ I laughed & said she made me blush … Brought Miss Mack into my room. Joked with her about her question. Said it was exceedingly well put. She said I was the only one in the house to whom she could have written it, because the only one who would have so soon understood it, that is, who would have understood the allusion to take it that way.

“Etes-vou Achilles?” is an illusion to when Achilles dressed as a girl in the court of Lycomedes in order to escape the oracle that says he is to die in the battle of Troy and is snotty british 1820s slang for “Do you read Autostraddle?”.

4. Pubic Hair Lockets

Marianna put me on a new watch riband & then cut the hair from her own queer & I that from mine, which she put each into each of the little lockets we got at Bright’s this morning, twelve shillings each, for us always to wear under our clothes in mutual remembrance. We both of us kissed each bit of hair before it was put into the locket.

Every girl needs a pubic hair locket!

5. Searched for Understanding

Friday, 29th November [halifax]
A long prose just before getting into bed. Talked of the abuse I had for romance, enthusiasm, flattery, manners like those of a gentleman, being too particularly attentive to the ladies, etc. That in consequence I had resolved to change & had succeeded in becoming much more cool & cautious in my general intercourse with people & much less lavish of cordiality & civility … I asked her if, after all of this [their lovemaking], she would own being in love with me. She said no, she did not like the term but clasped me in [her] arms. We kissed & fell asleep.

Said how it was all nature. Had it not been genuine the thing would have been different. I said I had thought much, studied anatomy, etc. Could not find it out. Could not understand myself. It was all the effect of the mind. No exterior formation accounted for it. Alluded to there being an internal correspondence or likeness of some of the male or female organs of generation. Alluded to the stones not slipping thro’ the ring till after birth, etc.’

Anne was very involved in the historical and scientific community and wrote much about possible scientific explanations for being gay.

6. Ex-lover Drama

Friday, 11 July [Halifax]
As I was getting into bed I began thinking how little confidence I had in M– & how little likely it was that we should ever get together. I was very low. I felt that my happiness depended on having some female companion whom I could love & depend upon & my thoughts naturally turned to Isabella. I got out her picture & looked at it for 10 minutes with considerable emotion. I almost wished to persuade myself I could manage her temper as to be happy with her.

Isabella is also called Tib in the diaries, she was a failed relationship Anne had after Marianna married.

7. Doesn’t Like a Tease

Saturday 9 November [Halifax]
Talking to Anne almost all the morning telling [her] she should either be on or off, that she was acting very unfairly & ought either to make up her mind to let me have a kiss at once or change her manners altogether. I said she excited my feelings in a way that was very unjustifiable unless she meant to gratify them & that, really, that sort of thing made me far from well, as I was then very sick, languid & uncomfortable — not able to relish anything.

Monday 11 November [Halifax]
Had a very good kiss last night. Anne [Walker] gave it me with pleasure, not thinking it necessary to refuse me any longer.

Kiss = Orgasm. Anne often listed the number and quality of the orgasms of herself and her partners–very Bridget Jones.

8. Got an STI

Saturday 14 December [Langton]
I had a very good kiss last night. Tib had not a very good one … I have been perpetually in horrors for fear of infecting Tib. I wonder whether the discharge is at all venereal or not?

Consulted the doctor about my complaint & the consequent discharge. Said I had caught it from a married friend whose husband was a dissipated character.

Monday 25 November [Langton]
Better kiss last night than Tib has given me for long. Uncomfortable in dressing with Tib in bed. She taxed me with using a squirt, as she called it. I denied, but won’t use the syringe again, however gently I might be.

Always practice safe sex when sleeping with a variety of people! I have never been so happy to live in the 21st century as when I found out what the syringe was they are referring to.

9. Has Bad Sex

Tried for a kiss a considerable time last night but Isabella was as dry as a stick & I could not succeed. At least she had not one & I felt very little indeed. She was very feverish, quite dry heat & seemed quite annoyed & fidgeted…

Friday 26 October [York]
A kiss of Tib, both last night & this morning … but she cannot give me much pleasure & I think we both equally calm in our feelings on these occasions … For my own part, my heart is M–‘s & I can only feel real pleasure with her.

10. Mixed Feelings About Dildos

Got on the subject of Saffic regard. I said there was artifice in it. It was very different from mine & would be no pleasure to me. I liked to have those I loved near me as possible, etc. Asked if she understood. She said no. I told her I knew by her eyes she did & she did not deny it, therefore I know she understands all about the use of a [dildo] … I mentioned the girl at a school in Dublin that had been obliged to have surgical aid to extract the thing.

Fancying I had a penis & was intriguing with her in the downstairs water-closet at Langton before breakfast, to which she would have made no objection.

Anne wrote about preferring the “natural feel of a woman,” but these sections reveal fascinating information about other lesbians using sex toys in the time period.

11. Didn’t Conform to Gender Constraints

This is womanizing me too much … she lets me see too much that she considers me too much as a woman. She talks to me about being unwell [i.e. having menstruation]. I have aired napkins before her. She feels me, etc. All which I like not. Marianna never seems to know or notice these things. She suits me better.’

Talked of the management my temper required. Marianna knew it well. It had its peculiarities but she did not fear. Talked of . . . my sensitiveness of anything that reminded me of my petticoats.

Anne Lister is famous for wearing all black men’s clothing and being called Gentleman Jack in Halifax and Fred by Marianna. There are also multiple entries about Anne’s dislike of women’s clothing and about how she preferred not to be touched during sex. She was very similar to the 1950’s Stone Butch, but without more information I hesitate to place any gender identity or trans* status on her. I will simply state that she did not conform to traditional gender norms.

12. Married a Lady

For if we once got together the world might say what it pleased. She should never mind … She shrank from having the thing surmised now, but declared that if we were once fairly together, she should not care about it. I might tell our connection to all the world if I pleased.

In 1821 and 1834 Anne Lister was married to a woman in a church attended by family. At the same time Jane Austen was writing about women not being able to inherit and needing to marry men quickly Anne was able to inherit her land, run her own business and leave her estate to her second wife Anne Walker. If you are interested in reading an economic analysis of why this is or if you simply are interested in more information about Anne Lister check out the list below!

Anne Lister's Will

Read More:

Anne Lister, The First Modern Lesbian by Rictor Norton
The Friend by Alan Bray
Lesbian Lives: Identity and Autobiography in the Twentieth Century by Nicky Hallett

Laura has written 3 articles for us.

29 Comments

  1. Ugh, the Church of England are currently being dicks about gay marriage proposals as they don’t want to marry gay people. Totally want to bust this out. “If you married lesbians in 1821, why can’t you do it today?!”

  2. Your girlfriend leaves you to marry a dude and then you get an STD from him? Damn. Based on this and the Vita Sackville-West article it seems like The Real L Word is filming in the wrong century.

  3. I’m just waiting for the straight girl who stumbled upon this website to see this article…

    “Well that’s fairly interesting–PUBIC HAIR LOCKETS???!! Da fuck?
    …So THAT’S what they do in bed!”

  4. Excellent work Laura! I really enjoyed this. My feelings are mixed on the BBC show, I thought parts of it were quite good but then it sort of fizzled out.
    This is a good illustration of how back then, lesbians and queers of all types, could only find freedom if they were lucky enough to be born with money. I’m sure there were some who managed it with out being rich, but they were the exception.
    That’s why I love the ending to Fingersmith so much. I kept expecting things to end badly but it’s just about the greatest ending possible. They’re young, in love, with property and a shitload of money.

  5. “I hesitate to place any gender identity or trans* status on her. I will simply state that she did not conform to traditional gender norms.”

    But by ID’ing her as a lesbian and using female pronouns you already are. It’s a little ciscentric to say someone like this is a lesbian until proved otherwise… don’t forget that for the first 5-years after his death, literally every article about Brandon Teena ID’d him as a lesbian too. Just sayin’.

    If you’re interested in more of these lives, I highly recommend a blog called “A Gender Variance Who’s Who” which covers a dizzying collection of gender variant and trans persons throughout history. http://zagria.blogspot.com/ It currently features a profile of Jack Garland, a FAAB person who might have been a lesbian living as a male, transmasculine or a trans man, and was a journalist and correspondant in the Philippines during the Spanish American War. Amazing stuff!

    • You’re not wrong, I’m following a predominant trend in the literature on her and actually meant to suggest that it’s perhaps not as clear-cut as just saying that she ‘is’ a lesbian. This might not be clear from the article as in retrospect I worded that sentence rather clumsily.

      My research revealed that most of the literature on her life tags her as ‘lesbian’ because she identified as female in her journal entries and exclusively had sex with women by her own account. Of course, it’s impossible to really draw any conclusions from that because the terminology we use these days to discuss gender and sexuality didn’t exist back then. She refers to her own behavior as Sapphic, which might offer some support for labeling her as a lesbian, but yeah, there is no way to be 100% sure that she’d self-identify that way if pressed in the now.

      Some of her diary entries do describe feelings or behavior that hint at additional and more complex considerations of sexuality and gender, and it’s a shame that we can’t go back in time and ask her to elaborate on her experiences using all the words that would be at her disposal now!

      I’ll have a close look through that blog, it sounds awesome!

  6. I enjoyed the BBC film, seeing it prior to knowing all that much about the details of her life. I read some of her diaries after seeing it and obviously the film is not an entirely faithful depiction, but, you know, Maxine Peake. So.

    I love these history posts! I’m going to have a Secret Diaries/Portrait of a Marriage marathon. BBC period dramas based on real gay ladies is my favourite genre.

  7. “If you are interested in reading an economic analysis of why this is or if you simply are interested in more information about Anne Lister check out the list below!”

    I’m really interested in the economic and legal aspects of her life, how she managed to do given the time and place. Which of these books talks most about that?

  8. YAY, I’m glad you guys wrote about her! And thanks for the extracts; I’m planning on buying the books eventually.

    But hey, I did like that movie and did not think it was horrible at all.

  9. I also thought the BBC version of Anne Lister’s diaries was great…maybe I’m, too much of a sucker for British accents and English melodrama. I also love the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice and Tipping the Velvet.

    The issue of Anne Lister’s gender identity is interesting. As I read farther into the diaries I wondered if she would identify as as a trans man if she were around today. She writes about a dream she had: “Foolish fancying about Caroline Greenwood, meeting her on Skircoat Moor, taking her into a shed there is there & being connected with her. Supposing myself in men’s clothes & having a penis, tho’ nothing more.”

    What does she mean by this? Why is her lover Marianne’s pet name for Lister “Fred” in their letters? Would Lister have preferred to be read as a man? Or is conceptualizing herself as Marianne’s “husband” the only way she had of expressing her desire for a female partner?

    I find thinking about this kind of thing an interesting way to put my own identity and other contemporary understandings of gender/sexuaity into perspective.

  10. sounds to me like nothing has changed. women who have had a traumatic experience, or disappointment in the area of love,….decide they will be gay now. make a big deal of it, make sure everyone knows it,…have a lot of drama, multiple partners, blah blah blah,…

  11. Pingback: Gentleman Jack by Angela Steidele – corkucopia

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