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Anne Lister: The woman behind Gentleman Jack

Emily Hewat shines a light on the namesake of York's newest college, 19th century lesbian landowner Anne Lister.

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Image Credit: Andreas Schwarzkopf, Wikimedia Commons https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en

In last week’s The Weekly Nouse, to celebrate LGBTQ+ History month, our editor Matt referenced a series of quotes from inspirational 20th and 21st century activists. These activists deserve to be celebrated but it is clear that popular history has forgotten many LGBTQ+ figures of the past. Academics and political figures have consistently chosen to omit what little evidence we have of female and LGBTQ+ sexuality throughout history and will probably continue to do so unless we actively choose to rewrite the history books ourselves.

The University’s decision to name their new college after Anne Lister plays a small part in changing this. Anne Lister was a 19th century lesbian who has become famous for her diaries that detailed her romantic relationships with other women. In a time when it was illegal to be homosexual, Anne was unafraid to show her sexuality and openly courted women. Her diaries are an excellent example of how LGBTQ+ figures were just as prevalent in the 19th century as they are today.

Anne’s first sexual relationship with a woman came during her time at school when she fell in love with fellow pupil, Eliza Raine. From an early age, Anne had been subjected to abuse for not conforming to female stereotypes and was locked away from the other pupils in the attic at her boarding school. It was here she met Eliza, a half-Indian girl thrown out by her white relatives, who would send secret letters to Anne. Anne would eventually break Eliza’s heart, sending her into a deep depression, but not before the two girls could create the code of Greek and Latin letters and numbers that would hide the more explicit details of Anne’s diaries.

Anne’s various love affairs continued and her diaries show that not only was she capable of seducing women, but that she felt no shame in doing so, believing that to be a lesbian was her ‘God given right.’ Anne was not ashamed of her homosexuality; in fact, during this period romantic friendships between young women were common, as parents would encourage girls to spend time together as opposed to seeing boys while they were still unmarried. The term ‘lesbian’ did not even exist at this point, therefore many of Anne’s lovers were confused about their feelings, yet acted on them nonetheless. Anne went on to “marry” Ann Walker in secret; the two took communion in church on Easter Sunday and afterwards considered themselves to be married.

Anne would never shy away from who she was and she wrote that “I love and only love the fairer sex.” But this determination not to conform led to her receiving abuse in society. One of her lovers Mariana Lawton admitted she was ashamed to be seen with Anne in public, as she was too masculine and often called ‘Gentleman Jack’ – this nickname inspiring the title of the recent BBC drama. The abuse she received makes the exposure of Anne’s diaries even more significant as they highlight how wrong the stereotypes of women in this time period were. Anne was, before anything else, a landowner and a businesswoman, holding shares in canals, railways and the ‘typically masculine’ collieries. She would travel independently and partake in Yorkshire society without a known spouse. Even in her youth, her ambitions would lead her to reject women who she felt did not have a substantial fortune useful to her. Anne was scorned because she did not conform to society but she was certainly not alone in this, as her diaries help demonstrate.

Anne’s diaries shine a new light on women’s sexuality and awareness of LGBTQ+ figures in the 19th century, but her work would have had a deeper impact on 20th century historians had academics not tried to omit Anne and her sexuality from history. In the late 1890s, her descendant John Lister cracked Anne’s code, but chose to keep his findings secret, worried that her sexuality would tarnish the Lister reputation and reveal his own secret homosexuality. Anne’s diaries stayed hidden until 1933 when academics became aware of this groundbreaking source of 19th century sexuality, yet a council declared some of the material “unsuitable”, making it impossible to share widely. Helena Whitbread’s study of Anne in 1988 was the first time that Anne’s diaries were allowed to be read in their entirety, and more importantly, the first time that historians considered that women’s sexuality could be more than either absent or completely defined by men.

Anne’s diaries were described as a ‘pivotal document’ by the UN in 2011 and were added to the register of the UNESCO Memory of the World programme as a “comprehensive and painfully honest account of lesbian life.” Popular culture is now beginning to take interest in this forgotten history with many period dramas such as the recent Regency era Bridgerton depicting accounts of 19th century sexuality honestly. The first blue plaque in the UK featuring a rainbow commemorates Anne’s secret wedding in Holy Trinity Church York, implying that the omission of non-conforming history is beginning to fade. Furthermore, the wording of Anne’s plaque has recently been changed from “gender-nonconforming” to an actual acknowledgment of Anne’s lesbian identity, after a petition of 2,500 signatures argued that the plaque’s wording was eradicating her sexuality.

Clearly, the fight to acknowledge LGBTQ+ historical figures is not over. Anne Lister has revolutionised LGBTQ+ history and I like to think that despite Anne making her code ‘impenetrable’ she would want her story to be shared today. Her attitude to society’s expectations was not only admirable, but inspirational; she is a definitive proof that despite oppression, her history cannot be silenced.

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