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literature

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Lister, Anne (1791-1840)  

Born in 1791 in Halifax, West Yorkshire, England, Anne Lister authored a remarkable series of diaries that she kept from 1817 to 1840. In coded sections, Lister recorded her romantic and sexual relationships with several women. The diaries were found, decoded, and transcribed by Helena Whitbread. Selections from the diaries are now available in two volumes edited by Whitbread: I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister 1791-1840 and No Priest But Love: Excerpts from the Diaries of Anne Lister, 1824-1826.

The code that Lister adopted for selected entries was developed to exchange love letters with an early lover, Eliza Raine, and then later with Marianna Belcombe Lawton, with whom she was sexually and emotionally involved from 1812 to 1828. Lister's relationship with Lawton predated and continued through the latter's marriage to Charles Lawton in 1815. Although not all the coded entries contain sexually explicit material, most are devoted to detailed descriptions of sexual activity. Lister noted orgasms as "kisses" and marked the margins of her diary with a cross to indicate when she had had one.

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Referred to as "Gentleman Jack" by Halifax residents, Lister appropriated the masculine style and persona of an upper-class landowner. Indeed, in 1826, when she inherited the family estate, Shibden Hall, from her uncle, she in fact became a member of the landed gentry.

Unfortunately, Lister's financial independence arrived too late to prevent Marianna from marrying Lawton for financial security.

Frustrated by Marianna's unavailability as a life partner as well as the latter's ambivalence about their relationship, Lister embarked on a series of sexual adventures with other women in 1823. In 1832, she cemented a union with a neighboring heiress, Anne Walker, and lived the rest of her life with her. Lister died in 1840 near the Caucasus Mountains.

Lister's narration of her experience is a rich blend of the mundane detail of daily life and probing self-reflection; the diaries offer accounts of intense emotion, tales of romantic adventure, and vividly sketched impressions of others. She scrupulously recorded costs and regularly calculated her net worth. She also detailed her ambitious efforts at self-education, fretted about her social position, and was snobbish about other peoples' lower status.

But the diaries are most significant as a source of historical ideas about sexuality. They raise interesting questions about gender performativity, theories of sexuality, and identity. Several entries focus on Lister's masculine appearance and her concern with apparel, whereas others relate to the love of women for women.

Although the coding of entries describing sexual intimacy suggests Lister's acute awareness of the transgressive nature of her desires, these descriptions are unabashed in their emphasis on pleasure rather than shame. Conscious of her difference and of the limits within which she could express her individuality, Lister nonetheless struggled to invent a self that accommodated her desires. Rather than trying to conform to conventional modes of female identity, she constructed one congruent with her sense of who she really was.

Ellen Chafee

     

 
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A portrait of Anne Lister by Joshua Horner (ca 1830).
  
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    Bibliography
   

Clark, Anna. "Anne Lister's Construction of Lesbian Identity." Journal of the History of Sexuality 7:1 (1996): 23-50.

Frangos, Jennifer. "´I love and only love the fairer sex': The Writing of a Lesbian Identity in the Diaries of Anne Lister (1791-1840)." Women's Life-Writing: Finding Voice/Building Community. Linda S. Coleman, ed. Bowling Green, Oh.: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1997. 43-61.

Lister, Anne. I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister 1791-1840. Helena Whitbread, ed. London: Virago, 1988; New York: New York University Press, 1992.

_____. No Priest But Love: Excerpts from the Diaries of Anne Lister, 1824-1826. Helena Whitbread, ed. Otley, West Yorkshire, U.K.: Smith, Settle, 1992; New York: New York University Press, 1992.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Chafee, Ellen  
    Entry Title: Lister, Anne  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated October 8, 2007  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/lister_a.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, New England Publishing Associates  
 

 

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