Anne Lister: 19th-Century Lesbian Role Model - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Anne Lister: 19th-Century Lesbian Role Model

Anne Lister: 19th-Century Lesbian Role Model

By Lorena O'Neil


Anne Lister managed her own estate, developed coal mines, enjoyed shooting, and reveled in her sexuality. Meet the woman many refer to as the “first modern lesbian.”

By Lorena O'Neil

Anne Lister was one badass lesbian superstar.

Born in England in 1791, Lister eventually inherited her family’s estate and managed it, developed coal mines, and traveled around the world, becoming one of the first women to climb the Pyrenees. Oh, and she was wildly promiscuous — courting ladies left and right — and kept detailed diary entries about her sexual exploits, which she wrote in a code she made up herself.

I love and only love the fairer sex and thus, beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any other love than theirs.

Like we said, badass.

To say she was a woman before her time would be accurate, but that isn’t even enough to describe Lister. She would be impressive even by today’s standards.

Lister came from a high-society family, the only landed gentry in the small town of Halifax. Three of her older brothers died very young, and the fourth drowned while in the army, leaving Lister as heir to the family’s land once her uncle passed away. “When people first come across her, they are amazed,” says author/historian Helena Whitbread, who has spent almost three decades researching Lister and is currently writing a biography on her. “She was such a multitalented woman. She ran her estate when she eventually inherited it; she outwitted all the Halifax businessmen.”

An extremely fascinating and inspiring aspect of Lister is how comfortable she was about being a lesbian, in a time when the word itself wasn’t even commonly used. “I love and only love the fairer sex and thus, beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any other love than theirs,” she wrote on Oct. 29, 1820. 

Lister used very small handwriting in her diaries to fit a lot of words on each page, especially when she was rushed or emotional. Whitbread says Lister wrote in code and often without spaces between the words, which made it even more difficult to decipher.

Whitbread spent four years decoding sections of Lister’s diaries where she talks about her homosexual affairs, amounting to about 4 million words written in a combination of symbols Lister created and Greek. These diaries aren’t for prudes or the faint of heart; many passages are lush with raunchy, salaciously provocative sexual details. We’re talking Fifty Shades here. When John Lister, the sole remaining member of the Lister family, deciphered the code in the 1890s, he and his friend reading them were shocked. He hid the diaries for fear of disclosing their revelations and, Whitbread surmises in The Secret Diaries of Anne Lister, because he was also afraid of calling attention to his own homosexual acts.

“The Lister diaries are the Dead Sea Scrolls of lesbian history: They changed everything,” writes author Emma Donoghue.

Though she came of age at a time when “good” women were supposed to be oblivious to sex — and when being out and gay was definitely not socially acceptable — Lister didn’t seem tortured. Whitbeard explains: “Her rationale about her own sexuality was, ‘This is my nature. To act in opposition to my nature would be more wrong for me than to be a married woman. I am living my life with the nature that God gave me. It is perfectly OK.’”

The Lister diaries are the Dead Sea Scrolls of lesbian history: They changed everything.

Lister’s homosexuality did not go unnoticed around Halifax. She often wore black clothes and was nicknamed “Gentleman Jack” by some of the townspeople. While Lister notes that the working class people often made fun of her, jeering at her masculine appearance on the street, the higher society people of Halifax “were anxious to have her to dinner” says Whitbread. However, she adds, the older generation at Halifax would be dismayed if they saw Lister had her eye on one of their daughters, due to her reputation as a seductive philanderer. One of the men who first translated her diaries in the 1890s later remarked that hardly any of Lister’s friends “escaped” her.

Portrait of Anne Lister

Anne Lister

From her diaries, it seems her first love was an Anglo-Indian girl named Eliza Raine, who went to boarding school with Lister when they were both 15. They slept in the same bedroom and were intimate, until Raine became so jealous that Lister moved on to another woman, Isabella Norcliffe. Norcliffe fell hard for Lister but made the mistake of introducing her to Mariana Lawton, known as “M—” in the diaries. Lawton was one of Lister’s great loves, and they had a long relationship, despite Lister’s feelings of betrayal when Lawton decided to marry a man. Their affair continued, even surviving Lawton giving Lister a venereal disease that she had probably contracted from her husband, who was apparently sleeping with prostitutes. (You cannot make this stuff up!) Their clandestine relationship came to an end when Lawton became accustomed to living a heterosexual lifestyle and began acting ashamed of Lister, causing the latter to become disillusioned with her lover.

Eventually, Lister moved on and fell in love with Ann Walker, who would become her life partner. They exchanged rings and took the sacrament at the altar of a church, simulating the symbolic rituals of marriage. The duo lived together until Lister died at age 49, after catching a fever while traveling in Russia.

Lister was by no means a saint. She was an intellectual and social snob and had no empathy for the poor, plus she was very aggressive in her seductions. But our hats are off to her for how accepting and confident she was in herself, in a time that made it more likely for her to be very lonely as a lesbian. She did not bend to gender norms; she created her own with a language to match. 

A lover of Lister’s once asked if she thought her father should have brought her up as a man. She replied, “No, because then I would not have been able to be in your boudoirs.”

Good point, Anne.

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