Who was Anne Lister?

Anne ListerFrom her earliest diaries onwards, Anne Lister makes absolutely clear how firmly she set her face against conventional marriage. There were no flirtations with men: she valued only those who possessed ancient gentry credentials, or whose experience and brains she could pick.

(Photo of Anne Lister to the right - by kind permission of Calderdale Leisure Services)

Yet, one by one, her women friends had married. Anne's relationship with some had been mere flirtations. More tragically for her, there were a few with whom Anne had romantically planned a permanent union.

Shibden HallIn 1826, on the death of her uncle James, Anne Lister inherited Shibden Hall. She ran this small Halifax estate with considerable entrepreneurial flair - developing its coal-mining potential, keeping a vigilant eye on her tenants - and, after the 1832 Reform Act, ensuring those in voting tenancies did indeed vote in her 'Blue' interest - that is, for the Tory candidate.

Also in 1832, Anne found herself - once again - bitterly betrayed by another woman's marriage plans. As always, she derived considerable comfort from her diary, confiding: 'Here I am, at forty-one, with a heart to seek. What will be the end of it? Heaven protect and guide me!'

Anne Lister's diaries

Presenting the Past Presenting the Past: Anne Lister of Halifax 1791-1840 (Pennine Pens 1994, 2010) tells the dramatic story of how Anne's diaries survived after her death in the remote Caucasus.

Nearly 150 years later, in 1984, a Guardian article 'The two million word enigma' alerted readers to Anne's extensive diaries. Then in 1988 Helena Whitbread's I Know My Own Heart made the diaries accessible at last to a much wider readership, establishing beyond a scintilla of doubt Anne's lesbianism.

Her curiosity aroused, Jill Liddington decided to check the diaries' word-count in the Archives at Halifax. To her horror, she discovered they ran to a total of four million words - that is, about three times longer than Samuel Pepys's diary. Of this, roughly one-sixth is written in Anne's secret code, recording her relationships with other women.

'Nature's DomainAs good as a marriage'

In 1832, Anne Lister, after her earlier forlorn melancholy, did indeed meet a woman with whom to share her life. Wealthy Ann Walker was a neighbouring heiress. The ancient Lister estate and newer Walker lands adjoined. What union could be more appropriate - especially for an estate-owner like Anne Lister, with social ambitions far exceeding her income?

Nature's Domain: Anne Lister and the Landscape of Desire (Pennine Pens, 2003) tracks her intense courtship of Ann Walker. It also record how Anne Lister began redesigning the Shibden landscape to give it a new elegance matching her own ambitious desires.

Same-sex partnership ceremonies 1834

Female Fortune Female Fortune: the Anne Lister diaries, 1833-36 (Rivers Oram, 1998) traces the sory of the partnership ceremonies of Anne Lister and Ann Walker.

In early 1834, exchanged rings. Then on Easter Sunday, the two women attended ancient Goodramgate church, tucked quietly away just behind York Minster. They stayed for the sacrament, and Anne Lister recorded in her diary: 'The first time I ever joined Miss W[alker] in my prayers - I had prayed that our union might be happy'.

By autumn 1834, Ann Walker had indeed move d into Shibden Hall. Like any other property-owning newly-weds, serious will-reading provided the natural language of love on their long winter evenings. Eventually, in 1836, a reluctant Ann Walker did redraft her will to benefit Anne Lister.

Where to go

To plan a visit to Shibden Hall, Halifax go to this webpage

Click here for the Herstoria (spring 2010) feature on Anne Lister by Alison Oram and Jill Liddington

Subscribe to Herstoria

Go to Radio 4 Woman's Hour page and listen to a Woman's Hour piece about Anne Lister from November, 2009.