Anne Lister, a landowner who is best remembered because of her letters and diaries. She broke the expectations of her time and became a renowned businesswoman. What did it take for a woman to excel in these times?
Anne was born as the second child of the notable soldier Jeremy Lister, but out of four sons two daughters, only Anne and her sister Marian would live to adulthood. From the start Anne was always a strong personality, even in school her teachers complained that she had such an influence over the other pupils and that she was an “unmanageable tomboy”. But She still excelled academically, having a fondness for reading and classical studies. But it didn’t stop there, as a woman she was forbidden to attend university, but she continued to educate herself in things such as Geometry, Geology, Natural science, Philosophy and Geography.
It was in here teenage years she met her ‘first love’, Eliza Raine. they met at 13. Although Anne would leave the school and the pair where separated Eliza wanted to live with Anne as adults. A dream that died when it became evident that during this time Anne had two affairs during their time apart. Eliza fell into a deep depression and spent many years in hospitals after this. We know of this early relationship due to the diaries that she wrote. Anne had written everything from her daily musings and current events, but its her tumultuous love life that stands out. At the time homosexuality was deemed a crime, which lead Anne to write of her Love life in a code. This code was made up of Greek letters and algebra. The same principle applied for any letters she wrote to her lovers. A cipher was developed by one of her relatives but hidden to protect the family’s integrity. The diaries would not be fully deciphered until the amazing Helena Whitbread brought it to light, beginning her work in the 1980’s . In Anne’s own words “I love only the fairer sex.”
She was an avid walker, but didn’t have much love for her home town of Halifax. She favoured long walks in the Pennines, taking in all the sights and enjoying the solitude. This was the backdrop of her relationship with Mariana Belcombe. Her journals from this time are lost, but we do know they met at a party hosted at Langton Hall in 1910 (Isabella Norcliffe, the owner’s daughter was Anne’s former lover.) From there they became fast companions. Its safe to say Anne fell fast and hard for Mariana. They would travel miles by carriage to meet and eventually exchanged rings. Ironically, Mariana’s family encouraged this. Thinking this friendship was so much more innocent and “safe” then visiting a man who could woo their daughter.
However, of constrictions of the times caught up with them Mariana married in 1815 to an older widower- a method of insurance and safety for her. Anne accompanied Mariana on her honeymoon. Which may sound unusual now, it was quite common for close friends of the bride to join the couple on their honeymoon. They seem to have tried to nix their relationship, tried to move on from one another. But it was to no avail, anguish brought them back to each other. Months after the wedding Anne would write…”[Mariana] herself suggested a kiss, I thought it dangerous and would have declined but she persisted.”
Their affair would be intermediate, always caring and writing letters whilst meeting in person every few weeks- or in some cases months. But they still lived lives outside each other. Mariana lived the life of a proper wife and lady. Anne would travel, improve her business, and take many other lovers. But none took Mariana’s place in her heart.
In this time Anne’s unique reputation came to a head in her community. She was a lady, who, in all aspects of her life acted as a man would. Anne did not care at all for the ideals of 19th century womanhood. She rejected frills and frocks for a more gentlemanly black clad look. She still wore skirts, outrightly crossdressing would have caught to much attention. But Anne’s clothing was still distinctly masculine, the designs where plain with high necklines and often paired with boots and a hat. She also had a boyish frame, being broad shouldered with a small bust. Anne’s mannerism’s raised eyebrows, she was haughty and distant with people in her town. To add further insult she was frequently mocked by the community. Many men would flirt with her in jest or send abusive letters. The term ‘Gentleman Jack’ is now used frequently when telling her story, this being reclaiming what was once an insult. However, her so called masculine tendencies let her become a respectable businesswoman. Having inherited her family estate in 1826 she quickly rose to the challenge of maximising her income. Her estates could yield coal and timber which was an exceptional income, add to this that she was able to make rent on cottages and farms and Anne was set. But she proved herself further with investments and negotiating with other industries. Never would she let herself be exploited, she would constantly study and expand her Knowledge of industry.
Unfortunately, these very traits would come to poison her relationship with Mariana. It all began with something you would expect from a roguish love interest from a romantic period novel. Mariana was on her way to meet Anne for one of their many weekends alone together. But Anne grew restless, having been missing her lover greatly she began a 12 mile walk to meet the Mariana’s carriage on route. Consumed with thoughts of Mariana and nothing else- her own words- she leapt into the moving carriage. She was soaked by rain and tired from the walk. Mariana was horrified at this impulsive grand gesture. She later remarked that she felt like her eyes where opened to another side of Anne. She began to think of her differently. Her boyish tendencies and roughness dented Mariana’s pride. She felt Anne’s affection had turned into harshness and uncouth impulse. During this visit the pair would visit Scarborough, where Mariana would socialise with the local ladies and attend a party with them. All while the same ladies snubbed Anne. Later Anne would as if Mariana were ashamed to be seen with her. Her reply cut Anne deeply; Yes.
From then on they began to drift apart.
Anne then tried to improve her social standing in the higher classes- perhaps haunted by Mariana’s words and the desire to continuously improve her career. One of these improvements came from her abroad to experience the world and learn about international business. She visited France, Russia, Spain, Germany, Scandinavia, The Low countries and Switzerland from 1826 onward. By doing this she was able to briefly enter into more aristocratic circles.
How else could Anne enter into the aristocracy with greater stability? Why, the same as any man would, find a rich wife. Anne tried to insert herself in upper class circles back in England but soon came to the conclusion that they wouldn’t have her. She lacked the sufficient wealth, class and feminine ‘grace’ to be embraced by them. That was until she met her wealthy neighbour, Ann Walker. She was perfect for Anne at this time in her life. The pair had been neighbours for years but seldom met beyond parties. Ann Walker had been orphaned at 19 and lost her brother at 26. This left Ann and her sister Elizabeth as the sole heiresses of their Estate. For this reason, Ann too had disregarded many social norms, being alone freed her from the constraints of familiar expectations and scorn. The relationship began in 1832 and progressed quickly, The pair soon moved in to Anne’s home at Shibden hall and married in the form of a church blessing in York’s Trinity Church in 1834 (Which as a plaque dedicated to this moment).Together they would renovate the aged Shibden Hall, tail the Pynenees and visiting Russia and enjoying country walks and mountain climbing there.
But their time was short, Anne died in 1840 while visiting Georgia.
Although tradition dictated Anne’s estates would be given to her male cousins, Ann was given a life interest in the estates. This however was of little comfort to Ann. After the funeral she was so lost in her despair she locked herself in their bedroom at Shibden hall, ordering that no one should enter. Weeks later when the door was broken down Ann was found surrounded by papers and loaded pistols. She was committed to an insane asylum by her Sister and extended family.
Anne’s story is an important piece of LGBT history, illustrating how sexuality and gender identity have developed over time. It humanizes the past in a way that’s personal and poignant, Anne’s diaries are a window to her own mind and experiences. Without looking into sources like this it would be all to easy for these figures to be glossed over. A fate that is wholly undeserved.