Sex symbols: Diary of UK’s ‘first modern lesbian’ decoded

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Sex symbols: Diary of UK’s ‘first modern lesbian’ decoded

Anne Lister left behind diaries full of symbols. It took five years to decipher them

Victoria Lambert


Diaries are made for keeping secrets. And no diaries contain more intrigue than those of early 19th-century Yorkshire heiress Anne Lister – 26 volumes so full of scandalous revelations that they were written in a sophisticated code of the author’s own devising, then hidden away in her Yorkshire home for 100 years.
They tell of her life as mistress of Shibden Hall in Halifax, its land and coalfields, of her friendships with the local gentry and travels across France and Russia. They reveal her as a voracious reader of the classics and a crashing snob. More sensationally, they record her frankly insatiable interest in seducing women, with no blushes spared.
“I love and only love the fairer sex,” she declared, “and loved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any other love than theirs.”
Yet, Lister’s story remained remarkably little known for generations. Only now, thanks to Gentleman Jack, a new BBC One series starring Suranne Jones, will the wider public get to know the remarkable woman some say was Britain’s first modern lesbian. Once they do, many will find – as her numerous lovers realised – that there is almost no one more charismatic and unforgettable.
I should know. Although Anne Lister died in 1840, nearly a century before I was even born, I’ve been obsessed with her for almost 40 years: a love story that began when I was 51 and led me to decoding and transcribing her diaries – all four million words and 6,600 pages of them.
It was 1983, my children had grown up, I had recently graduated with a degree in politics and literature and wanted to start a new career as a writer. I knew a little of Lister, having been born about a mile from Shibden Hall – by then in the gift of the local council – and visited its park often as a child.
I was aware of an archive of letters and journals, but when I learnt some of them were written in code – a mixture of Greek, Latin, mathematical symbols and the zodiac – I was hooked.
The code had first been cracked by John Lister, the last descendant of the family, and a friend called Arthur Burrell in the mid-1890s. They found a sentence with the words “In God Is My” followed by four symbols, which could only stand for H, O, P and E. This enabled them to unlock the rest – but what they found in the few passages they deciphered, horrified them.
John Lister was not being especially prudish – his fear was that if the diaries were made public, his own homosexuality would be uncovered. Burrell wanted to burn them, but it was decided instead to hide them behind Shibden’s wood panelling. There they remained until John’s death in 1933, when they were discovered and gifted to Halifax Library. A reluctant Burrell, by then in his 80s, decided he was honour-bound to give them the details of the code, too, adding his copy would “be burnt”.
One or two earlier scholars had decoded a few passages, but I was the first to tackle them all. This meant collecting 50 pages every weekend, painstakingly transcribing symbols into letters and then – as there was no punctuation – making the letters into words and the words into sense. It took five years, but I couldn’t have stopped. I was too intrigued.
Lister was remarkable for her time in so many ways. She ran the family estate as a tough businesswoman; she travelled to Paris where she set up her own dissecting laboratory to better understand human anatomy; she loved to travel and socialise – but above all was this Casanova-esque fascination with other women.
The first volume I started with introduced Mariana Belcombe, a young woman with whom Lister shared a passionate affair. When Lister wrote of how Mariana suggested they have a “kiss”, the word was used as it is in French, as slang for sex. She then described how they got down on the floor and took off their drawers before ... well, Lister is never less than frank about detailing what she enjoyed.
Sadly, Mariana broke Lister’s heart by marrying an older man for his money; I don’t think she ever invested in another woman in quite the same way again. Not that their love affair ended at the altar. In the early 1800s, it was common for a newlywed to be accompanied by female companions, so I was amused to read that Lister joined the couple on honeymoon in 1816. Perhaps to heal her heartbreak, she seduced Mariana’s sister, who was also on the trip.
The journals give an impression of a woman with a well-practised seduction technique, though her preferred chat-up line was fairly oblique. When she met a woman she was interested in, she would enquire: “Have you read the sixth Satire of Juvenal?” – a piece of writing that tells of two stepsisters who “rode each other like horses”.
If the answer was yes, she would know at once that she was in with a chance. She would launch a charm offensive and then delicately get around to a chaste kiss. At the time, women could spend a lot of time together alone without raising suspicion. The ideal of romantic friendship allowed for holding hands and even sharing beds.
Lister was never predatory and wouldn’t have gone to bed with an unwilling partner. She liked mature women in their late 20s and 30s, of at least equal rank – she once vowed never to seduce a servant – and could juggle several lovers at a time, although she was sometimes fearful she could not restrain herself.
She couldn’t understand her yearning for women. “No exterior formation accounts for it,” she wrote, “it is all a thing of the mind” – but she had no interest in men. Nor, despite wearing masculine clothes, leading to the nickname “Gentleman Jack”, did she want to change gender. One of her lovers asked if she would have preferred to have been raised as a son, but Lister demurred. “I wouldn’t be able to be in your boudoir,” she pointed out.
Lister finally settled down with a neighbouring heiress called Ann Walker. They considered themselves married after taking communion together at Holy Trinity church in York in 1834. Lister’s promiscuous days were behind her, but sadly she died six years later, at 49.
Was her sexuality secret at the time? The matrons at the smart tea tables of Halifax wanted their daughters not to be alone with her. One woman told her: “Nature was in an odd freak when she made you.”
There is speculation that Charlotte Brontë, whose sister Emily lived near Shibden Hall as a governess, featured Lister in her novel Shirley. Would she have minded me writing about her today? As she once said to her aunt, “I wish for a name in the world”. Her wish has been granted.
• As told to Victoria Lambert. The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, edited by Helena Whitbread, Little, Brown Book Group.
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)

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