Lots of people do not know who Anne Lister was. Especially if you are from outside of Yorkshire, in Northern England. In her time she earnt the rather disrespectful nickname of ‘Gentleman Jack’ , but now it is plain to see she was one of the most remarkable women of her time.
Anne Lister (1791-1840)
Anne Lister was born in 1791 in Halifax, the second child of a gentleman soldier. She was one of several children, but only herself and a younger sister made it past 20 years of age. As she grew older, she spent a lot of time with her Aunt and Uncle. They owned Shibden Hall estate, a large country estate in-between Halifax and Bradford. As was common at the time, at first Anne and her sister had a tutor. But as Anne grew older she was sent to the Manor House School in York.
It was here she met Eliza, who was the daughter of a rich East India Company surgeon. And they started a love affair. Anne had realised that she loved women more than men. And thus started a series of clandestine relationships.
She wasn’t always fair with her lovers. She cheated on Eliza with other pupils at the school. Eliza ended up in despair in an asylum. Anne went on to have a catalogue of female lovers, and she documented them all in her faithful diary. She even devised a cypher from zodiac and mathematical symbols with Greek and Latin letters and words to discretely record all aspects of her intimate encounters.
Anne dressed in a manly fashion, and was given the nickname ‘Gentleman Jack’. But she was a woman of means. Unusually, she had inherited Shibden Hall on the death of her aunt, and had her own income from tenants and produce from her land. As a woman in the early 19th Century, it would have been quite difficult to be forceful against the men of the age, and do business with them. It was definitely believed that women were not meant to be business owners. Anne combated this by her masculine dress. She wore a long coat and hat, and went about all dressed in black. She made sure that she was educated well, and exuded confidence. Ultimately, she was determined to learn as much as any man could.
Over the years she discovered a love of travel, and carried on wooing women across Europe. Again she recorded all this in code in her diary. She travelled to Paris. Then into the Pyrenees and Spain. This was so unusual for a woman in this time, and she was so brave. But when her money started to run out, she needed to come home.
And that was where she rekindled a relationship with a wealthy heiress from a neighbouring estate. Yes, Anne needed Ann Walker’s money, but they did truly fall in love. Anne asked her new love to move into Shibden Hall. To live together like a married couple. This was a move fraught with danger in these times.
At the age of 42, Anne and Ann made wills in each others favour and they wore each others rings. Their ‘wedding’ took place at the Holy Trinity Church in York on Easter Sunday 1834. They obviously could not have an official ceremony, but they shared a communion. Anne’s promiscuous days were over.
But there was a lot of outrage over their relationship. The couple endured harsh treatments by acting like a married couple. An anonymous advert appeared in a Leeds newspaper announcing their marriage, and they received mocking letters. Anne and her wife endured these, though it really must have been so horrible.
A few years after they were married, Anne wanted to go travelling again, so the couple returned to the Pyrenees, and then travelled across Europe to the Black Sea. But it was here that sadly Anne Lister died. It is thought that she was bitten by an insect, and the fever that followed killed her.
Her wife Ann inherited the Shibden estate. But scandalously, her ownership was cut short when her family accused her of having mental health issues. They broke into the hall and Ann was sent to an asylum.
Anne Lister’s diaries were found by her descendant John Lister in the 1890s. With his friend Arthur Burrell, they deciphered the code and translated the diaries. Again, in the Victorian age this story of female love was abhorrent to the two men, and the diaries were almost destroyed. But luckily they lived to be rediscovered and deciphered again.
The diaries tell us so much about lesbian life in the 1800s. It wasn’t all romance and flowers. But did need to be clandestine as it was considered to be so scandalous. Anne shows herself to be intelligent, extraordinary and a little bit ruthless. But at the same time she was incredibly brave to go against the grain of womanhood and follow her passions and business so well. In a time when it was definitely a man’s world.
Anne Lister has been described as ‘the first modern lesbian’. Whilst I don’t think she was the first, she certainly gives us a wonderful snapshot of how lesbian women were certainly able to exist in an era where it is rarely documented. The diaries of Gentleman Jack are such a treasure.