As part of the AHRC-funded ‘Challenging Domesticity in Britain’ project, we were thrilled to welcome historian Dr Jill Liddington to the University of Manchester for a public lecture on ‘the first modern lesbian’, Anne Lister. Dr Liddington’s book Nature’s Domain (2003) inspired the hit BBC series Gentleman Jack, which examines Anne Lister’s life. Given that October 8 is International Lesbian Day, the lecture was a very exciting opportunity to delve deep into the story of an icon of British LGBTQ history.
Portrait of Anne Lister (Photo by West Yorkshire Archive Service)
Born in Halifax, West Yorkshire, in 1791, Anne Lister was a highly educated entrepreneur who travelled the world and owned shares in male-dominated industries such as mining. With her ‘masculine’ persona and refusal of heterosexual marriage, Lister was unconventional, particularly due to her romantic encounters with women. One female companion in particular- a less wealthy heiress named Ann Walker- moved in with Anne Lister at Shibden Hall, the Tudor-style property which ‘Gentleman Jack’ herself had inherited. Remarkably, the pair even took Holy Communion together on Easter Sunday in 1834, during a time when lesbian relationships were not visible in polite society.
Shibden Hall, West Yorkshire. (Photo by Calderdale Museums)
Whilst travelling in Georgia with Ann Walker in 1840, Lister died of a fever. She was buried in a church in her hometown. Shibden Hall was left to her lover, but sadly, Ann Walker was declared insane and later became confined to an asylum.
Anne Lister is survived by her diaries, where she detailed the chronicles of her love affairs. In fact, the four million words of her journals are written using an amalgamation of Greek letters, symbols and numbers. Though notoriously difficult to read, this code was eventually cracked by Anne Lister’s indirect descendant, John Lister, who was shocked by his discovery. So sensational are Lister’s passionate entries of female homosexuality, the first of its kind in historical record, that the works have been coined ‘the Dead Sea Scrolls of lesbian history’.
Everyone in the room enjoyed listening to Dr Jill Liddington’s presentation. Following the lecture, we were treated to a wine reception at The Pankhurst Centre. A fitting tribute to the English diarist who handled the finances, collected rent and oversaw all the business enterprises of her family estate- showing that ‘the home’ was much more than just a domestic refuge for nineteenth century women.
Follow us at @Ch_Domesticity on Twitter to keep up to date about our next events.
Written by Saima Akhtar, Network Coordinator for Challenging Domesticity in Britain, 1890-1990.