“When I first heard that you have been keeping a diary from a young age and, furthermore, that you had used an esoteric code, I was immediately interested. I was further intrigued by the fact that you are a lesbian and wrote about your sexual life. It seemed to me that a modern parallel could be drawn with Anne Lister, the early 19th century lesbian diarist who had written a great deal about her lesbian sexuality in her journals, couched in a secret code of her own devising. I thought it would be interesting to see how far this hypothesis could be taken and wondered if you would be willing to join me in an exploration of the similarities and differences, as diarists and as lesbians, between yourself and a woman who lived some two hundred years before your time.”
These remarkable diaries are a piece of lost lesbian history. Anne Lister defied the role of womanhood seen in the novels of Jane Austen: she was bold, fiercely independent, a landowner, industrialist, traveller – and lesbian. She kept extensive diaries, written partly in code, of her life and loves. The diaries have been edited by Helena Whitbread, who spent years decoding and transcribing them.
This journal is taken from the period 1824 to 1826, starting with Anne’s trip to Paris. It is through her amazingly frank and detailed journals that we are able to enter into her adventurous life. The chronicling of her passionate affairs with other women would have startled her contemporaries. ‘I love and only love the fairer sex’, she wrote. The explicit accounts of her sexual contacts have a power to shock that has not diminished.
Upon publication, the first volume of Anne Lister’s diaries, I Know My Own Heart, met with celebration, delight, and some scepticism. How could an upper class Englishwoman, in the first half of the nineteenth century, fulfil her emotional and sexual needs when her sexual orientation was toward other women? How did an aristocratic lesbian manage to balance sexual fulfilment with social acceptability? Helena Whitbread, the editor of these diaries, here allows us an inside look at the long-running love affair between Anne Lister and Mariana Lawton.