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Portrait of Anne Lister and her statue in Halifax

Anne Lister: The secret diaries of 'Gentlemen Jack'

Left: Photo of Anne Lister's statue in Halifax by Richard Bevan: Right: Portrait of Anne Lister by Joshua Horner (1830)

Anne Lister: ‘First modern lesbian’ and diarist

Anne Lister was a vibrant, unique character who challenged the gender expectations of women in the 1800s. The Halifax-born land-owning traveller and diarist possessed an uncompromising and irrepressible spirit about how she led her life and who she loved while living in a man’s world. As her scandalous diaries themselves reveal, she was on a mission to understand and interpret, her gay identity.

Anne Lister: Who?

Until recently, most people who grew up in Halifax had never heard of Anne Lister, apart from the odd hearsay rumours about a woman who ‘married a woman’ at the town’s historic house, Shibden Hall.

Outside academic circles Lister’s extraordinary life was confined the history books’ radar before the 90s. The BBC TV drama series Gentleman Jack which debuted in 2019 captured the attention of millions of viewers around the world and introduced a global audience to Lister’s story. Today Anne Lister’s androgynous image in her trademark top hat (an invention by the TV costumiers) as depicted by actress Suranne Jones as Lister, is dotted around the town and used enthusiastically as part of Calderdale’s tourist promotions. Before the series, the town’s most maverick historical character was invisible despite being one of the few residents buried in Halifax Minster.

Although famously associated with Shibden Hall, Anne was born in Halifax town in a house known as Saint Helens. At the age of seven, as she was somewhat precocious and challenging, she was sent to a ‘Dame’ school in Ripon. Her delicate mother could not control her while Anne’s father was often away on military duties. Years later Anne revealed that she was whipped every day at the school, possibly to take the ‘tomboy’ out of her.

Hidden diaries

Historian Helena Whitbread first encountered the journals of Anne Lister in 1983 which were originally discovered behind a wall panel at Shibden Hall by Lister’s descendant John Lister (1847-1933). Due to their explicit content, the diaries were subsequently hidden again. Whitbread has been intellectually hooked by Lister’s eventful life for the past 30 years. She describes the moment she first became intrigued. ‘Anne’s diaries start with the emotive phrase, “Eliza left us”. She was 15 when she wrote that introduction and it was the start of her luminous journal of 6,600 pages and 2 million words’.

Whitbread’s punishing task was to decode the ‘quick hand’ passages where in Lister’s efforts to encrypt her most intimate feelings and desires she described her life as a lover of women. Once decoded, it emerged to unsuspecting readers that Lister was a gay woman and had had a long-running affair with a woman called Mariana Belcombe, who lived in York. ‘Lister’s coded writings were so explicit’ continues Whitbread, ‘that no ambiguity or doubt could be left in the reader’s mind’. It was an audacious revelation given the sexual mores of the day when sexual feelings between women were not thought possible.

The love that didn’t officially exist

Lesbianism was not only unrecognised in Lister’s era during the 1800s it wasn’t even considered illegal. There was no cultural understanding of such sexual relationships. The most recognition of intimacy between two or more women was ‘Romantic Friendship’. Where Lister challenged such ignorance was in the way her diaries were highly sexual leaving no uncertainty about their nature. However, it is doubtful they were meant for others to read.

Despite the conservative attitudes at the time regarding how women should behave in society – for the most part politically powerless and shackled to husbands – Anne Lister’s accepted ‘difference’ by her uncle James is most likely the reason why she inherited Shibden Hall.

James knew that his niece would never marry and allow a man to interfere with the Lister estate.

Gentleman Tory

Lister, uniquely for the time, was a businesswoman with a financial portfolio that included properties, and shares in the canal and railway industry. She used the income to renovate the Lister family home at Shibden Hall and enjoy European travel, particularly with her young lover heiress Ann Walker.

On the political spectrum, she was not a philanthropist or an advocate for social reform relating to workers’ rights. An ardent Tory, Lister had little empathy for the plight of the poor in Halifax and was fervently ‘interested in defending the privileges of the land-owning aristocracy’ reflecting her privileged social position, which allowed her to live comfortably and travel extensively around Europe.

Anne’s travel expeditions demonstrated her adventurous spirit as she explored France, Italy, Switzerland and Spain. In the latter, she ascended the 11,000 ft Monte Perdido and in 1834 hiked for 10 hours up the Vignemale in the Pyrenees. Her expedition to Russia with Ann Walker, visiting places few Europeans had visited, caused unrest amongst the local population unused to Western tourists.

The lovers

Eliza Raine as she was known was Anne’s first lover. The illegitimate, half-Indian daughter of an East India Company surgeon was set to inherit a fortune. Both schoolgirls were 15 and shared a bedroom at a boarding school in York and quickly became lovers.

Due to Anne’s challenging behaviour, she was asked to leave the school while Eliza stayed on. During the summer of the same year, Eliza stayed with Anne at the family home in Halifax and it was when Eliza left to go back to school that Anne began her diary.

Eliza, deeply in love with Anne expected to live with her as an adult, but Anne moved on to other lovers, including Isabella Norcliffe and Mariana Belcombe. Eliza, distraught by having been abandoned became a patient at an asylum run by Mariana’s father.

Perhaps the most celebrated of Lister’s lovers was Ann Walker, who was 12 years Anne’s junior and a wealthy heiress. The passionate lovers, maintaining the appearance of close companions, eventually took communion on Easter Sunday in 1834 in Holy Trinity Church, York and considered themselves married despite no legal recognition legitimising their union.

They honeymooned in France and Switzerland. Walker’s fortune helped to renovate Shibden Hall to how it appears today, and the couple lived there together, often having to deal with gossip surrounding their relationship. Only Lister’s death in 1840 separated them.

Anne Lister’s legacy

Anne Lister’s account of what it felt like, to live as a lesbian in an era where there was no understanding of such sexuality or language to describe it, is an important reference - not just relating to general history - but to the LGBT community today. In Lister’s time, her nature was brushed aside or viewed with contempt, at best dismissed and at worst seen as an unnatural way of living.

How Lister dealt with her sexuality in a hostile world, bravely recognising who she was, determined to live her life truthfully, is an example that still resonates today. At the time of writing her diaries, it is unlikely that Lister conceived them to challenge social attitudes and laws, but as unique documents celebrating her love for women, they prove to be inspirational.

Key dates

Born: 3 April 1791, Halifax, West Riding of Yorkshire, England.

Died: 22 September 1840, (aged 49) Kutaisi, Georgia, Russia.