The recent and critically acclaimed BBC series Gentlemen Jack has sparked an interest in the real woman behind the programme. Remarked to be the first ‘modern lesbian’, she had an incredible life that only became public knowledge many decades after her death.
Anne Lister was born on the 3rd of April 1791 in Halifax, Yorkshire. She was the second child and eldest daughter of Jeremy Lister, a former soldier, and Rebecca Battle. The two were wealthy north of England landowners. She had five other siblings, four of them brothers, but only Anne and her younger sister, Marian, survived.
In 1793, the family moved to Skelfler House in Market Weighton. Anne began her education at home with the vicar of Market Weighton, the Reverend George Skelding. Later, in 1804, she was sent to boarding school in King’s Manor, York. She was expelled following a relationship with another female student, Eliza Raine, who later suffered from mental health issues. Raine was placed in an asylum following the discovery of Anne’s relationships with several other students. Following her issues with school, and the time she spent there as a child, Anne moved in permanently with her Aunt and Uncle at Shibden Hall in 1815. When her Uncle James died in 1826, Anne started to manage and renovate the estate. In 1836, when her Aunt and Father died, she took compete control of the estate.
Due to her inheritance, she became the owner of agricultural tenancies, town properties and a quarrying business which she went on to expand. She was known as being a firm, driven but fair landowner, who made major improvements to the estate. This is partially due to the fact she had been involved with the running of Shibden Hall from a young age. She was known by local people as ‘Gentlemen Jack’ and would often be seen wearing dark coloured men’s clothes. This led to her getting heckled and stopped in the street as well as being the target of abusive letters from local people.
Historians have argued that the prejudice she received from the people around her fuelled her desire to escape from the constraints of home in order to live her life as freely as possible. Because of this, she spent a lot of her adult life away from Yorkshire, travelling whilst using her income from the Hall to fund herself. Much to her family and business partners’ annoyance, she often only returned home when she ran out of funds or was forced to attend to urgent business.
She made her first trip to continental Europe in 1819, a two-month trip to France. In 1824, she returned to Paris and stayed until the following year. In 1826, she was back in Paris and began a tour of northern Italy and Switzerland, returning in 1828. In 1829, with Paris as her base, she visited Belgium and Germany before heading south to the Pyrenees and Spain. She also made the first ascent of Mount Perdu in the Pyrenees in 1830, before summiting Mount Vignemale in France in 1838. Her last trip began in 1839. It took her through France, Denmark, Sweden and Russia where she arrived in St Petersburg before travelling to Moscow. Travelling so extensively, taking part in such hard, traditionally ‘masculine’ physical activities, and all of this without a male chaperone, was unheard of for women of her class at this time.
There were two main loves of Anne’s life. The first was Mariana Belcombe, who she met aged 23. She was referred to as ‘M’ in Anne’s journals. However, Anne suffered from heartbreak following Mariana’s marriage to an older man in 1815 so that she could gain financial stability. Their relationship was ended and the heartbreak was said to have impacted Anne for the rest of her life. It is seen as one of the main reasons for her extensive travelling, using it as an attempt to escape from the memories.
Her most retold and well-known relationship was with the heiress Ann Walker. The two women had been casual acquaintances throughout the 1820s, but they were first properly introduced when they became neighbours in 1832. Miss Walker had moved in with her Aunt and Uncle to recover from being of ‘unsound of mind’. Historians believe she may have been suffering with anxiety and depression. They began an intense and whirlwind romance in the following months.
The two were married on March 30th, 1834 in Holy Trinity Church, Goodramgate, York. The marriage took place under the cover of night using church blessings and the lighting of candles to consolidate their love and commitment to one another. This has been viewed as the first lesbian marriage in Britain. They later visited France and Switzerland for their honeymoon. The couple then moved in together at Shibden Hall and combined their landowning interests.
They both lived and travelled together until Anne Lister died aged 49 on September 22nd, 1840 in Georgia. She had contracted a fever while travelling with Ann. Her body was embalmed and brought to the parish church in Halifax to be buried by her lover on the 29th of April 1841. It remains there to this day. Her partner gained Anne’s estate from her will, and died in 1854 from ‘congestion of the brain’.
The reason historians know so much about Anne Lister’s life is that, starting in 1806, she wrote a partially encoded 26 volume-long diary. Linking to her love of education and literature, the code was made from a blend of algebra, ancient Greek mathematical symbols, punctuation and the Western zodiac. It has been dubbed ‘Anne’s Crypthand’. Anne believed that her code was unbreakable and no key was ever left for posterity. However, in the 1890s, the code was cracked by John Lister, the new owner of Shibden Hall, and his friend Arthur Burrell. They discovered that the code was used to cover up her sexual encounters. Sections with Xs and Qs were used to denote different sexual acts. The diary also included her notes on her seduction techniques, a skill on which she prided herself.
In order to preserve the diaries, avert scandal and prevent their destruction, the diaries were hidden behind wall panelling in the Hall until John Lister’s death in 1933. When the ownership of the Hall was passed to Calderdale Council, the site became a museum. The journals were found and Anne Lister’s incredible and trailblazing life was brought back into public knowledge.