'I Only Love the Fairer Sex': The Wild World of the 'First Modern Lesbian'

The incredible true story behind 'Gentleman Jack': Anne Lister had stormy affairs with women and brazenly wrote about them. Some 200 years later, she's a queer icon

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Pages from Anne Lister's coded diary.
Pages from Anne Lister's coded diary.
Yoana Gonen
Yoana Gonen
Yoana Gonen
Yoana Gonen

When Helena Whitbread entered the public library in the West Yorkshire town of Halifax, in 1983, she had no idea that she was about to discover what author Emma Donoghue was to describe as “the Dead Sea Scrolls of lesbian history.” Not long before, Whitbread had completed an undergraduate degree as a mature student, and she was now looking for an interesting research topic for an article. “I’d heard about Anne Lister, who lived in my hometown of Halifax, 200 years ago, and I decided to go down to the archives, where a collection of her letters was held, and find out more about her,” she relates by phone.

Reading the letters turned out to be a frustrating task. Paper was expensive in early 19th-century England, and the postage was assessed by weight. To save money, writers would write down the length of the page, then turn it sideways and fill it again across, making reading difficult. When Whitbread complained about this to the archivist – his response altered the course of her life: “Did you know she kept a journal?” he asked.

“When he put up pages of the journal on a microfilm reader, I saw that there was this code, and I decided immediately that I needed to know what this woman was hiding,” Whitbread says. “Luckily, a key to the code was available in the archives. I took 50 pages of the journal home, and I began to decode the coded passages, symbol for letter.”

Lister (1791-1840) was an educated landowner, who was conservative in her opinions but nonconformist in her behavior, managed her family’s financial affairs and traveled through Europe without a male escort, which was highly unconventional for women of the time. Her diaries comprise some 6,600 pages, about one-sixth of them written in code, the rest in difficult-to-read handwriting. It was a challenge to decipher and understand them.

As Whitbread became acquainted with Lister’s world, she noticed that the names of certain women kept coming up. Gradually the reason for employing code and concealment emerged: “Anne Lister was a lesbian in the days before that word was really used. She was having affairs with other women.”

At what point did you know this for certain?

Whitbread: “The journals I had at the time started in 1817. The one entry that made me realize that was when Anne went to visit a woman named Mariana Belcombe in York. They got into bed together and Anne writes that she took off her drawers and that they had ‘a very good kiss.’ I realized the word ‘kiss’ actually meant they had sexual intercourse.”

Whitbread, however, was not the first to decipher the secret of the diaries. The key the Halifax archivist gave her was compiled around 1890 by the politician John Lister, a distant descendant, the last to live in Shibden Hall, the Lister family home. He managed to crack the code together with a friend named Arthur Burrell; both were shocked to discover the uninhibited manner in which Anne Lister wrote about lovemaking with women, masturbation and sexual fantasies.

Anne Lister.Credit: Calderdale Metropolitan Borough

Burrell suggested that they burn all 27 volumes of journals, but Lister – who Whitbread and others think was himself gay – preferred to hide them behind wood paneling on the estate. After his death, in 1933, Shibden Hall became public property and the diaries were discovered and deposited in the Halifax archive. Burrell turned over the key he had devised to deciphering the code, while asserting his disapproval of the subject matter. In the decades that followed, various scholars drew on the non-coded sections of the diaries, while the archive staff appointed themselves censors and ensured that any publications emerging from their research did not include any “inappropriate” material.

Fortunately for Whitbread, freedom of information legislation was passed in the United Kingdom during the course of the five years in which she worked on unlocking the secrets of the volumes, so she could not be prevented from publishing them. In 1988, she published her first book, “I Know My Own Heart” – a selection of Lister’s coded diaries, from the years 1817 to 1824. At first some people thought it was a hoax, finding it difficult to believe that a woman from that period could not have written with such brazen and aware openness about sexuality in general and lesbian sexuality in particular. But the journals were entirely authentic; it was the scholarly perceptions concerning the history of lesbian identity that were false.

In the wake of Whitbread’s first book – she is currently working on a biography of the first decades of Lister’s life – numerous books and articles appeared containing additional entries from Lister’s diaries, and discussing her historical and cultural significance.

'Anne writes that she took off her drawers and that they had a very good kiss. I realized the word kiss actually meant they had sexual intercourse.'

She became more widely known, the BBC broadcast a television film about her life in 2010, and a year later UNESCO added her journals to its Memory of the World register, which preserves writings deemed important to the world’s cultural heritage. But it wasn’t until this past April, with the start of the first season of “Gentleman Jack,” a successful BBC-HBO series based on her writings, that Lister became a queer icon and achieved the place she deserves in history. The series focuses on the last part of her life: At 41, following a lengthy sojourn across Europe, after another lover broke her heart and her hopes of being accepted into high society were dashed – she has decided to return to Shibden Hall and find a wife close to home.

‘Heart and purse’

“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.”

– Anne Lister’s journals, July 12, 1823

Lister was born in Halifax, England, in 1791, the second of six children of a British officer from a respectable but not affluent family. She received what was a relatively broad education for girls of her time and class, first with a private tutor and afterward at a boarding school in York. There, at the age of 13, she met her first love, Eliza Raine. The two shared an attic, separate from the other girls, because they were different from them: Lister was poorer, Raine was wealthy but half-Indian and dark-skinned.

The privacy allowed their relationship to flourish. It was then, around 1805, that they developed the secret code that enabled Lister to set down her innermost thoughts and that would torment curious scholars in the centuries ahead. The code was based on algebraic symbols and Greek letters, and using it they were able to write each other love letters. Their relationship was deep and conscious: They exchanged rings, and Raine called Lister “my husband,” planning to live with her in their adult years. However, after two years, packages they had sent to each other were apparently discovered and Lister was rebuked and expelled from school. She was not allowed to return until Raine had graduated.

The relationship did continue, but with time and distance between them Lister’s heart was drawn to other young women. Among them was Isabella Norcliffe, who would subsequently go on to introduce her to the woman who would be the love of her life: Mariana Belcombe, the daughter of a York physician. Rejection by Lister broke Raine’s heart; she collapsed, and she was hospitalized in an institution for the mentally ill for the rest of her life. Lister occasionally visited her.

In Belcombe, Lister found what she would continue to seek for the rest of her life: a partner of status who would enable her to climb the social ladder. That wasn’t unusual for an era in which marriage was more of a business arrangement than a romantic ideal. With Lister it’s difficult to separate the two: She sought to be “united in heart and purse,” in her words.

However, the vast majority of women in 19th-century Europe could not stand on their own. In 1816, Mariana Belcombe, too, had to marry a well-off widower named Charles Lawton for financial reasons. She and Lister believed that Lawton , who was 53 at the time, would die within a few years and leave his assets to her. As a token of their mutual commitment, Belcombe gave Lister the ring she had received from her husband, receiving in return a ring on which Lister had engraved her own initials.

Still, the marriage hurt Lister deeply and shattered her hopes for the practical possibility of a life partnership between women. On November 18, 1819, after meeting Belcombe in her home while Lawton was away, Lister wrote in her diary: “Asked how often they were connected [had intercourse] &, guessing, found might be at the rate of about twenty times a year. Got into bed. She seemed to want a kiss [sex]. It was more than I did. The tears rushed to my eyes... What is M-’s [Mariana’s] match but legal prostitution?... From the kiss she gave me it seemed as if she loved me as fondly as ever. By & by, we seemed to drop asleep but, by & by, I perceived she would like another kiss & she whispered ‘Come again a bit, Freddy.’” “Fred” was Belcombe’s nickname for Lister, who in contemporary terms was probably a masculine lesbian and not a transgender man.

Lawton was enraged when he discovered the affair, but later turned a blind eye. Lister had concurrent affairs with other women – her seductive power was equal in its intensity to her sexual desire – but the relationship with Belcombe continued, on and off, until 1834, when Lister moved in with a rich, neurotic young woman named Ann Walker. “Your having taken another to your bosom has not left vacant your place in Mary’s heart,” Belcombe wrote her.

Anne thought that her sexuality, her ‘oddity’ as she called it, was so unique that she was perhaps the only person who had been born like that.

In contrast to her lovers, Lister succeeded in achieving economic independence and even began managing her family’s assets. Among the unique reasons that led to this was the fact that her four brothers had died, three in infancy and one in a boating accident in the military, leaving only her and her sister, Marian. In 1815, she went to live with her aunt and uncle, James and Anne, two single siblings who lived together at Shibden Hall.

James inherited the family fortune, which derived largely from rent paid by tenant farmers living on the family’s land. “He had no high opinion of ladies – was not fond of leaving estates to a female,” Lister wrote. Eventually, however, her business acumen prevailed: Her uncle allowed her to manage the assets and to inherit his estate when he died, in 1826. In her efforts to move up in the class hierarchy, Lister expanded the family business. This included her establishment of a coal mine on her property – a dangerous, competitive industry entirely dominated by men.

“Mr Rawson said he was never beaten but by ladies & I had beaten him,” she wrote in 1832, about a local competitor. “Said I gravely, ‘It is the intellectual part of us that makes a bargain & that has no sex, or ought to have none.’”

Her steady income and the relatively liberal attitude of the aunt and uncle toward their unusual niece enabled Lister to travel around Europe and enjoy two of her favorite pastimes – romantic affairs with women and mountain climbing. She also continued to broaden her education in fields such as literature, anatomy, economics and politics.

Lister’s education, business activities and freedom of movement were exception among women of her era. “We need to think of her as a unique woman, but one that historical circumstances of class, property and inheritance nevertheless made possible,” notes Dr. Michal Shapira, a senior lecturer in modern European history at Tel Aviv University. “Her education and her literacy also helped her in her life. There are a few more women similar to her, but none exactly like her. And only in very rare cases were there women estate owners, a role that was the product of both her family circumstances and her personality.”

Through her learning and reading, Lister sought also to understand her identity, writing in 1824: “I had thought much, studied anatomy, etc., but could not find it out,” she wrote in 1824. “Could not understand myself. It was the effect of the mind. No exterior [physical] formation accounted for it.”

“She read a lot of the ancient Greek and Latin classics to find any mention of homosexuality,” says Whitbread. “But it was mostly male homosexuality that she found, and she would try and work it toward understanding her own sexuality. She only found one reference to female-on-female sexuality, and that was the Sixth Satire written by Juvenal [first-century, C.E., Roman poet]. He wrote about two stepsisters, who on their way home stopped under the moon and ‘rode each other like horses.’ And that was one clue Anne had that female-to-female sexuality existed in those far, long ago times. If she met another woman whom she thought could be of the same sexual persuasion as herself, she would ask her, ‘Have you read the Sixth Satire of Juvenal?’ And if they said yes, she would feel confident in approaching them sexually.”

That could explain her success with women: I imagine they were all simply embarrassed to admit they hadn’t read it.

Anne Lister’s ancestral home, Shibden Hall. Her journals were entirely authentic; it was the scholarly perceptions concerning the history of lesbian identity that were false. Credit: Alexander P Kapp

Whitbread: “Yes, I don’t know what would be the chat-up line for lesbians today, but it certainly wouldn’t be ‘Have you read the Sixth Satire of Juvenal?’”

In addition to classical texts, Lister formed her identity in light of the Romantic movement then flourishing in Europe. The Romantics extolled the singular, exceptional individual and emphasized the importance of his or her feelings and desires as a driving force and as the foundation for aesthetic expression.

“Anne Lister’s notion of her ‘nature’ combined classical sexual knowledge with the romantic sense of inner passions whose truth derived from their transgression of society’s laws,” historian Anna Clark writes in her 1996 article “Anne Lister’s Construction of Lesbian Identity.” Thus, for her, her “sexual desires for other women were natural and, therefore justifiable. Furthermore, they composed her ‘nature’ as an individual.”

According to Whitbread, “Anne thought that her sexuality, her ‘oddity’ as she called it, was so unique that she was perhaps the only person who had been born like that. And I think in that way, her journal was the only thing that could contain her emotions. In this day and age we would probably go to psychotherapy or something like that.” Michal Shapira adds that, “The act of writing apparently helped Lister explain to herself her unusualness and to take pride in it as another, natural form – even a divine gift from her point of view – of love and sexuality.”

But the effort to construct an identity, the emotional venting and even Lister’s descriptions of her many sexual escapades would not have been enough to fill 6,600 pages – an extraordinary scope for any diary.

“There was definitely a two-pronged reason for her keeping the journals,” Whitbread observes. “One was to talk about her sexuality and to relieve her emotions, and the other was to keep track of her ordinary life.” Lister described her daily activities in great and obsessive detail, which gradually increased over the years.

Her social class allowed her to transgress some sexual and gender-related norms, but that did not inspire her to accept deviations of other sorts.

She documented everything, from the daily temperature and the minute details of her business transactions, down to the orgasms she and her partners experienced: “She marked orgasms in the margins with an X, while a curled Q represented a sexual experience,” Whitbread explains. When Lister mentions orgasms she had while masturbating, she sometimes uses the negative term “incurred” – as in, inflicted on herself – perhaps reflecting the guilt that, being a pious Anglican, she could not entirely escape.

Whitbread: “I think the burgeoning detail was just a compulsion with her. It was a way of ordering her life, if you like. And that’s why the uncoded parts of the diary are a wonderful resource now for historians [studying] that era.” Indeed, many scholars have used them over the years for that purpose. In fact, before John Lister succeeded in decoding his ancestor’s journals and then hid them, he himself published parts of them, dealing with local politics, in the press.

‘Skin of queer’

“Miss W [Walker] laughed and said we were well matched. We soon got to kissing on the sofa… At last I got my right hand up her petticoats and after much fumbling got through the opening of her drawers and touched (first time) the hair and skin of queer [genitals]… When dusk, she asked, ‘If you never had any attachment, who taught you to kiss?’” – October 8, 1832

Because of the self-aware and active manner in which Lister forged her identity and sexuality, some have dubbed her the “first modern lesbian.” That’s a good slogan, but Lister’s journals actually undermine a common notion of the “invention of modern homosexuality.” For a long time, historians maintained that a lesbian identity didn’t exist until the end of the 19th century or later, when it was supposedly created by sexologists and psychiatrists who gave it terminology and characteristics. Yet, long before that lived a woman who not only slept with other women, but who also perceived this as an essential element of her nature.

“I love & only love the fairer sex & thus beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any other love than theirs,” Lister wrote as early as 1821.

She wasn’t even the only one. During her time, and even earlier, there were other women like her who were mentioned openly and covertly in various sources. They just didn’t keep detailed diaries of a kind that would allow us to know how many orgasms they “incurred” in the company of other women. And in contrast to male homosexuality, the female equivalent was not an offense under British law (unlike other places in Europe), so legal documentation is lacking.

“Anne Lister illuminates not only lesbian history but questions of representation and agency in the larger field of the history of sexuality as well,” writes Anna Clark in her 1996 article. “Until recently, historians of homosexuality have followed the social constructionist paradigm that our sexual identities are shaped, even determined, by discourses rather than by our own desires. For instance, women who loved women in the 18th and 19th centuries were thought to have followed the model of ‘passionate friendship.’ Nineteenth-century women, it was thought, could not even conceive of sexual desire for each other, having no words for such feelings... Similarly, Michel Foucault posited that until the late 19th century a man who engaged in sodomy was punished for committing an act regarded as sinful and/or criminal, but he was not regarded as having a homosexual personality... This Foucaultian paradigm has been breaking down in the last few years.”

“What’s clear from Lister’s case and from contemporary historical research,” notes Shapira, “is that the development of modern homosexual identity should be understood as a longer process that didn’t just happen at the end of the 19th century and early in the 20th, with the sexological and psychological discourse that supposedly invented homosexuals. In Lister’s case, it’s clear that she has a solid gender and sexual identity of her own – which she developed by herself in many senses, but which she also based on classical and Romantic writings – as different, and as a woman who loves women. It’s also clear that scientific discourse is not an exclusive source for creating or enhancing identity, certainly in that period, but also later on.”

A scene from "Gentleman Jack."Credit: Matt Squire / HBO

The assumption that there were “no words for such feelings” also turned out to be mistaken. Literary historian and author Emma Donoghue, the one who compared Lister’s journals to the Dead Sea Scrolls, did some digging and discovered that the Oxford English Dictionary was wrong. According to the dictionary, the word “lesbian” as a noun referring to a woman who is attracted to women appears in English for the first time in 1925. Therefore, this is considered to be the point at which lesbians began to be perceived as a group.

But Donoghue found the word lesbian used in that sense as early as 1732, in a poem by William King titled “The Toast,” in which he ridicules a woman who was skilled at sex with women, writing: “She was therefore dignified with the Title of Chief of the Tribades or Lesbians.” “Tribade” is a word of Greek origin that was used in those days to describe lesbians, alongside pejorative terms like “sapphic” (referring to the poet Sappho from the island of Lesbos), “fricatrice” (from Latin, “to rub”), “tommy” and others.

“The sheer number of these words,” Donoghue writes, “made me jettison the theory that, in the 18th century, women who were attracted to women could not have thought of themselves as belonging to a certain type or group, or could not have been thought of that way by observers.”

Here, too, Lister’s journals prove that, contrary to the previously hypothesis in academic literature, people around her were well aware of her sexuality.

“There was a lot of very discreet talk, shall we say, around the kitchen tables of Halifax,” Whitbread relates. “They would say things like, ‘Well, we all know what Miss Lister is about,’ and they said it was no great privilege for young women to befriend her.” Whitbread notes that both Lister’s father and her aunt were apparently aware of her preferences and accepted them, and that she found great comfort in conversations with the latter.

All in black

At Easter in 1834, Walker and Lister sealed their union in a church in York. As far as they were concerned, they were now married in the eyes of God.

“The people generally remark, as I pass along, how much I am like a man. I think they did it more than usual this evening. At the top of Cunnery Lane, as I went, three men said, as usual, ‘That’s a man’ & one axed [sic] ‘Does your cock stand?’ I know not how it is but I feel low this evening.”

– June 28, 1818

Over time, Lister adopted many characteristics that were considered masculine in her day. She wore only black (young women more commonly dressed in white), avoided bonnets, cut her hair short (though she had curls that she would fasten to her head in public), enjoyed brisk walks, fired pistols and played the flute (each period has its own masculine norms, it seems). The residents of Halifax would mutter insults when she passed by, and after her death nicknamed her “Gentleman Jack.” When her partner Ann Walker eventually moved in with her, someone placed a scornful ad in a local paper, congratulating “Captain Tom Lister” on his marriage to her.

Marriage was Lister’s greatest goal, as she was pious in her faith and conservative in her opinions. Her social class allowed her to transgress some sexual and gender-related norms, but that did not inspire her to accept deviations of other sorts. She supported the Tory party and promoted class privilege. In her younger years she ridiculed activists who fought for women’s suffrage, though eventually this view softened – still, only in regard to women who were educated and owned property. According to Shapira, “The institution of marriage also served her to normalize and validate her relationships.”

At Easter in 1834, Walker and Lister sealed their union in a church in York. The ceremony mostly transpired in their minds – they simply prayed and took the sacrament together – but as far as they were concerned, they were now married in the eyes of God. In 2018 municipal authorities placed a plaque on a wall at the church, commemorating the secret union that had been sealed there. Lister’s diary entry from that festive morning opens: “Three xxx’s [orgasms] – better to her than to me.”

Walker moved into Shibden Hall, and her fortune enabled Lister to thoroughly renovate her ancestral estate – not always to Walker’s satisfaction. The marriage was not a happy one, not least because of the differences in their two characters. The depressive Walker preferred being at home; Lister wanted to travel to exotic locations and conquer mountain summits. Ironically, it was she who did not survive one of their journeys. In September 1840, during a trip to present-day Georgia, Lister was apparently bitten by an insect and died – thousands of kilometers from her home. Whitbread notes that according to her journal, she had planned to end her relationship with Walker upon their return.

Walker returned with the body, in a difficult, eight-month journey. She now inherited Shibden Hall. A short time later, however, her relatives had her declared insane and forcibly institutionalized her – perhaps out of concern for her deteriorating condition, or perhaps in order to gain control of her assets.

Walker also brought back the final volume of Lister’s diary from Georgia. The last entry is dated August 11, 1840: “High hills north, and, within, ridges of wooded hill rising every now and then into little wooded conical summits... Lay down [to sleep] at 9:30.”

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