Anne Lister (sometimes called “Gentleman Jack“) is a remarkable figure in history for a number of reasons — but one of them was that she was living openly as a lesbian in Regency England. Not exactly an easy thing to do (though easier than being a gay man — which you could be executed for). Anne is sometimes called “the first modern lesbian” (whatever that means) and her coded diary gives some insights into some very modern (for the time) views of sex and sexuality.
Anne was the second oldest child, and oldest daughter, in her family, born April 3, 1791. She and her younger sister were the only two of six to survive to adulthood. Anne discovered her sexuality at the age of 13, at boarding school with a girl named Eliza Raine. Eliza was terribly in love with Anne, and expected to live her when they graduated. That ultimately didn’t happen, and Eliza was “driven to despair” and institutionalized (because that was a thing you could do with emotional women, especially if they were emotional *lesbian* women.)
Instead of having a forever-kind-of-love with Eliza, Anne ultimately had for-right-now kinds of love with Isabella Norcliffe and Mariana Belcombe. All while at school. (Incidentally, Clifton Asylum — where Eliza Raine was sent — was run by a Dr. Belcombe. Mariana’s father. Coincidence?) She would continue her relationship with Mariana even into adulthood — and even once Mariana married a man. Mariana’s husband not only knew about their relationship but apparently gave his permission for it to continue.
With so few people left in her family by her adulthood, Anne Lister performed — without ever trying to — a very rare feat for the time period. She inherited land from a relative. Anne became the sole owner of Shibden Hall — which she extensively made over both to allow herself greater privacy and also because she wanted to, basically, show off how rich and influential she and her family were.
And oh boy was she rich. Anne had, aside from income from tenants living in the farming lands of Shibden Hall, but also from properties she owned in the nearby town, as well as investments she made in canals, railroads, coal mining, and other industries. This sort of business savvy was unheard of in women of the day — and ruffled more than a few feathers. But Anne had more than enough money to live life exactly as she wanted with little to no interference from anyone else.
Anne was also able to convince her lover Ann Walker to move into Shibden Hall, and the two engaged in some “marriage rituals” (I’m using quotes because I haven’t found any elaboration of what those rituals might have been) to honor their relationship — although they were not married in the eyes of the country or the church.
Aside from women, Anne other great love was adventure. And she had plenty of money to finance travels to places where she could have adventures. In 1830, Anne became the first woman to ever climb up Monte Perdido in the Pyrenees. Eight years later, she and Ann Walker would return to the Pyrenees. Together, they became the second pair of people ever to complete a climb up Vignemale — the tallest mountain in the French Pyrenees. This climb also made them the first women to climb the mountain, and the first non-locals to climb it. As a result, Anne Lister became something of a hero in France.
Anne Lister died of a fever while traveling in the country that is now called Georgia on September 22, 1840. Shibden Hall was inherited by Ann Walker — however this was disputed and Ann’s sanity called into question. She spent some time under the care of Dr. Belcombe (were there any other mental health doctors in England at the time? Seriously?) and this invalidated her ability to inherit.
Now we know a LOT about Anne Lister because, well, she was obsessive about her diary. Her diary is a 4 million word volume that she began in 1806 while in her relationship with Eliza. The writings continue, in a code, throughout her life and explicitly detail her relationships with other women. The last person to live in Shibden Hall, John Lister was able to decode the diary. His friend Arthur Burrell told him to burn the diary, but John opted instead for hiding it in a wall where it was eventually found. The diary completely re-shaped a lot of our understandings of the Regency period — and especially re-shaped our idea of what life was like for lesbians of the time.
(Adapted from this Facebook post.)