• Anne’s journal as a refuge from the world

    Anne was aware of the impression her masculinity or her ‘oddity’, as she called it, made upon people. Usually she was able to rise above the vulgar taunts of the rougher elements in the town. As a member of the landed gentry, however minor, her social status in the town enabled her to consider herself above the crowd. When accosted in the streets by strange men who attempted to become over-familiar with her, her sense of dignity was both affronted and reinforced. On one such occasion, after politely exchanging a few civilities with a carter who had stopped her on her way home,

    I had wished him good night & had not gone more than 2 or three yards
    before he called out, ‘Young woman. Do you want a sweetheart?’ ‘What!’ said I angrily, ‘I never listen to such impertinence but I shall know you again, & mind you never speak to me again’. He muttered something, I know not what. Did the man mean to be impertinent, or was he encouraged by my talking to him? It will be a lesson to me to take care to whom I talk to in future. One can hardly carry oneself too high or keep people at too great a distance. [Journal entry 5th May 1820.]

    Her greatest refuge from the ‘slings and arrows’ of the world was her journal.

    “I owe a good deal to this journal. By unburdening my mind on paper I feel, as it were, in some degree to get rid of it; it seems made over to a friend that hears it patiently keeps it faithfully, and by never forgetting anything, is always ready to compare the past & present & thus to cheer & edify the future.” [Journal entry 22nd June 1821.]

About Anne Lister

Anne Lister (1791–1840), now known as ‘the first modern lesbian,’ was a wealthy, independent landowner from Shibden Hall in Halifax, West Yorkshire.

Anne kept several volumes of detailed diaries, totalling more than four million words, from the age of fifteen, when she fell in love with her fellow pupil Eliza Raine at the Manor School in York–until her untimely death from an insect sting, at age forty-nine, while travelling in Russia.

One sixth of Anne’s diaries are written in a code, devised by herself, based on a combination of algebra and the Greek alphabet, to which Anne referred as her ‘crypthand.’ She was convinced that no-one would ever be able to decode it. She was wrong. When the diaries were discovered a few decades ago by a member of the Lister family, who broke the code, Anne’s lesbian sexuality was discovered … and quickly buried. John Lister, the relative in question, was gay himself, and did not want to draw attention to his own sexuality by revealing his discovery of the diaries.

The encoded portions of Anne’s diaries document her passionate love affairs with other women. Anne was strikingly free and easy about her sexuality and her numerous romantic encounters. Dressing always in black, without any feminine frills, she was the nineteenth century equivalent of a butch lesbian, and known to the locals as ‘Gentleman Jack.’ She openly courted young women–many of whom seemed most willing to fall under her spell.