Anne Lister was born in 1791 in Halifax, West Yorkshire. She was a lesbian—that is, her romantic and sexual relationships were exclusively with women. On 29 January, 1821, she wrote, “I love & only love, the fairer sex & thus beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any other love than theirs.” Her most important relationships with women were with Isabella Norcliffe and Mariana Lawton, but she also had several more casual sexual relationships, which are chronicled in her diaries. She had a younger sister and one brother who lived to adulthood, but his death in 1813 left Anne as the heir to Shibden Hall, where she went to live with her aunt and uncle in 1815. The Listers were the only land-owning family in the neighborhood and Anne was a bit of a snob about this; she visited the neighbors but often wrote in the diaries that she wished she had friends who were more her equal (socially or intellectually or both). One neighboring woman, Ann Walker, did eventually live at Shibden as Anne Lister’s wife. This was known in the neighborhood and they seem to have been quite frank about the nature of this relationship. They traveled together; Anne climbed mountains and lived in France; she studied French and Greek; she ran her estate. According to Wikipedia Ann Walker took control of the Shibden estate after Anne Lister’s death.
Anne Lister was considered somewhat eccentric and masculine—from what she writes in the diaries I gather her voice, facial features, and body type were all considered masculine. From the way she writes about it she seems to have cast herself as a husband and considered Mariana Lawton (for example) her wife. Mariana called her Fred or Freddy; working class locals in Halifax called her Gentleman Jack. It would be impossible to assess what Anne Lister’s relationship to gender would be in modern terms, but I’ve extracted some passages from her diaries which I think give some clues to her relationship to her gender, body, and sexuality. Also I picked out the sexy bits, because really.
The passages in italics are those written in the code she used to write about sex, relationships, and (for whatever reason) clothing. She also wrote letters to Mariana Lawton in the code, which she called “crypt.” The code was made up of Greek letters and other symbols. Anne Lister died in 1840 while traveling in Russia; John Lister, the last member of Anne’s family to live in Shibden Hall, cracked the code in 1887. He was shocked by the contents of the diaries, but being a lovely, historically-minded gentleman, he resisted advice to burn them and instead hid them behind a wall panel at Shibden. After his death in 1933 Shibden and its contents became the property of the city of Halifax. The town clerk wrote to Arthur Burrell, who had helped John Lister crack the code and advised burning the diaries, and Burrell reluctantly gave a key to the code to Halifax’s librarian. The key was locked in a safe. The librarian’s daughter, Muriel Green, was given the job of cataloguing the documents acquired from Shibden Hall. She wrote a dissertation about Anne Lister’s letters and was aware of the details about Anne’s sex life contained in the diaries, but though she and others continued to work with and write about Anne Lister’s documents, Anne’s sexuality was not public knowledge until the excellent Helena Whitbread began to transcribe the diaries in the 1980s. All of this information is borrowed with enormous thanks from Helena Whitbread’s introduction to The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister.