Anne Lister kept a diary where she divulged the dirty details of her scandalous bedroom exploits. To protect these sordid confessions from prying eyes, she invented a special code that wasn’t cracked for years. This queer icon wrote about every woman she ever seduced—every risk she ever took. Dubbed "the first modern lesbian," Anne's life gleamed with extraordinary scandal.
1. She Was Always Different
From the very beginning, Anne Lister was not your typical little girl. Born in 1791, she quickly grew into an "unmanageable tomboy," puzzling her parents with her wayward personality. By the time she was seven, they'd whisked Ann off to boarding school. But this was not some charming adventure...It was more of a nightmare.
2. She Was Naughty
Anne's teachers felt threatened by Anne's headstrong ways and feared that her naughtiness would rub off on the other girls. To isolate her from her peers, they came up with a twisted plan. They restricted her freedoms and hid her away in an attic bedroom. Although Anne's loneliness began to fester, she didn't bend to defeat. Instead, she turned to her one and only solace.
3. She Was Obsessive
Shunned by the school, Anne began to write feverishly in her diary, expressing every frustration and thought on paper. However, this was no typical journal. Even in her youth, her attention to detail was all-consuming. She recorded everything, time-stamping every part of her day, noting every correspondence, and even listing everything she ate. But this was just the tip of the iceberg.
4. She Wanted So Much More
Anne's diary also reflected her unrivaled intelligence. For such a young girl, she wholeheartedly devoted herself to her studies. Every lesson, from Greek to astronomy, was extremely important to her. During a time when universities prohibited women from enrolling, Anne lusted after education and resolved to know as much as any man. Of course, this wasn't the only thing she lusted after...
5. She Had A Dark Secret
Anne Lister's diary concealed something far more scandalous than study notes. It also revealed her undeniable attraction to women. You see, when she was 15 years old, Anne finally gained a roommate—a half-Indian girl named Eliza Raine. As the illegitimate daughter of an English surgeon, Eliza had been sent straight to the attic to live with the school's other exiled pupil.
However, despite their banishment, these two unlikely girls discovered their own forbidden bliss.
6. She Embarked On A Forbidden Affair
Behind closed doors and under the cover of their own seclusion, Anne and Eliza embarked on a hot and heavy affair. Like Anne, Eliza also kept a diary, and together, they had a code word for their intimate romps. With the memory still fresh, these infatuated teens would pen the word "felix"—the Latin word for "happy". But this wasn't enough for Anne. Not even close.
7. She Had The Perfect Disguise
When it came to recording her bedroom experiences, Anne went a step further and devised a complicated code to mask her illicit desires. She used a brilliant combination of Greek and Latin, as well as a wide range of symbols. As an expert secret keeper, Anne thought that nobody would be able to crack her code. And for the time being, she was right.
However, while her diaries revealed her passion play, Anne had more than just romantic designs on her lover.
8. She Wanted More Than Pleasure
Anne Lister was a woman of reason, and she recognized that Eliza Raine could offer her far more than pleasure. You see, in order to live life as an unmarried woman, Anne needed to make her own living. Eliza's destiny led her straight to a glorious inheritance, and Anne had her eye on the prize. With that kind of money, she'd be able to relish in high society and maintain her independence.
However, with two hearts on the line, someone was bound to get burned.
9. She Had A Wandering Eye
Anne had won Eliza's heart in every way, and poor Eliza was completely besotted with her impressive lover. But it was never meant to last. Anne, having explored this first relationship, began thinking about new experiences with other women. Eager to dive further into her desires—or as she called it, her "oddity"—Anne had a difficult choice to make.
10. She Broke Her Heart
Anne's longing to pursue other women broke Eliza's heart beyond repair. The breakup sent Eliza spiraling into a dark place from which she never surfaced. She wrote, "You can little know what pain you have given me". But that wasn't the worst part. Eliza's mental health never bounced back, and in the end, she ended up languishing in a lunatic asylum.
Although Anne witnessed Eliza's disintegration with anguish, she'd already distanced herself from the relationship and was more than ready for her next great conquest.
11. She Had No Shame
Undoubtedly curious about her "oddity" and its cause, Lister hit the books, scouring anatomy tomes for clues about her unique urges. But no matter how hard she looked, no good reason provided itself. Although she kept her private life a secret by necessity, Lister felt no shame and came to accept her attractions as completely natural.
And when it came to securing lovers, Anne Lister was a bona fide pro.
12. She Was A Masterful Seducer
When her nose wasn't in a book, Anne Lister was on the prowl. Ravenous for potential lovers, she strategically attended soirées with her well-to-do friends, turning up the charm and her effortless power of seduction. Women fell under her spell and Anne took full advantage of their tormented feelings. But even as she warmed the beds of countless women, her heart remained locked away...that is until she met the most irresistible woman.
13. She Found "The One"
Anne Lister was a queen at keeping things casual...and then Mariana Belcombe entered the picture and changed the name of the game entirely. Mariana was the "sweet-looking" daughter of a doctor who floated through refined society with ease—a circle that Anne had expertly wiggled her way into. Before long, Anne's defenses were at Mariana's mercy.
As the walls came down, Anne's heart was more vulnerable than ever—and it was in for the wildest ride imaginable.
14. She Went The Distance
Anne fell head over heels for Mariana, and as their love deepened, they went to extreme lengths to keep the spark alive. As long-distance lovers, the women wrote long, winding letters to one another. With Anne in Halifax and Mariana in York, they each traveled between the cities, enduring the 40-mile trip with eager anticipation. For once, Anne had found something that she didn't want to lose.
15. She Was One Of Many
At this time, close friendships between women were quite normal. In fact, most families encouraged their daughters to devote themselves to their girlfriends to stave off unwanted pregnancies. Of course, behind closed doors, these friendships often developed into covert romances. Anne and Mariana were caught in the middle of this very same predicament—but it was Anne who nursed a far-fetched dream.
16. She Wanted A Wife
When it came to Mariana, Anne was all in. The two of them even exchanged rings, cementing their commitment to one another. Still, it never felt like enough. As always, Anne dreamed of having the same freedoms as men—she desperately wanted Mariana to be her wife. Certainly aware of the impossibility of their love, she still hoped that they'd be able to find a way to live together.
Sadly, Anne was in for a very rude awakening.
17. Her Dreams Shattered
Unlike Anne, Mariana certainly wasn't the risk-taking type. A life of scandal was never in the cards for her. Instead, she bowed to societal expectations and dealt Anne an excruciating hit. In 1815, Mariana made an earth-shattering announcement: She planned to marry a rich widower. Anne was horrified, but she had no choice but to watch from the sidelines as the love of her life said "I do" to somebody else.
Still, there was even more pain to come.
18. She Had Front Row Seats
Societal tradition stabbed Anne Lister in the back, and then circled back around to twist the knife in deeper. Because Anne was Mariana's closest friend, she was expected to join the married couple on their honeymoon. She had front row seats to her own heartbreak, and could practically feel Mariana slipping through her fingers—but soon, Anne's sadness turned to red-hot fury.
19. She Had A Poison Pen
Mariana's honeymoon left Anne's heart in tatters. Hurt and filled with vengeance, she unleashed her anger through her diary, Casting Mariana as the enemy, she even supposed her guilty of "legal prostitution". Alone once again, Anne took her heart back to the bedroom and began sleeping with other women...and not just any women.
20. She Exacted Her Petty Revenge
Although her new lovers couldn't erase the memory of Mariana, Anne didn't have to go too far to exact her petty revenge. In fact, amongst her numerous affairs, she even seduced Mariana's sister. Clearly, Anne wasn't afraid to get down and dirty, but deep down, she just missed Mariana with all her heart, writing, "Surely no-one ever doted on another as I did then on her".
Although it seemed like the end for Anne and Mariana, in truth, it was only just beginning.
21. She Couldn't Let Her Go
Anne and Mariana spent an entire year separated from one another. But, as they say, distance only makes the heart grow fonder, each of them realizing that they couldn't shake the shackles of love. As luck would have it, fate brought them back together in York—and their reunion was everything Anne had hoped it would be.
22. She Dove Back In
Upon meeting again, Mariana spirited away Anne to her bedroom. Later, Anne wrote of their rekindled romance, "She herself suggested a kiss. I thought it dangerous and would have declined but she persisted". The couple picked up where they had left off—their affair as passionate as ever. However, despite their happiness, Mariana had a bone to pick with her longtime lover.
23. She Made Her Jealous
Although Mariana was at the top of her list, Anne still sought out other women. Mariana was a married woman after all and wasn't always around to fulfill Anne's passions. However, the problem came down to one destructive sentiment: Jealousy. As it turned out, Mariana wanted Anne all to herself, and after an evening of carnal delight, Anne confessed to her diary, "She [asked me to swear] to be faithful, to consider myself as married".
This was everything Anne wanted to hear—but it would only end in disappointment.
24. She Planned A Romantic Surprise
In August 1823, a disturbing chapter came to pass. While waiting for Mariana to arrive from Chesire, Anne came up with a seemingly romantic plan to surprise her: Instead of meeting Mariana at the manor, she set out to ambush her en route. This was, by no means, an easy feat—but Anne was up to the challenge. Sadly, it turned into disaster.
25. She Braved The Elements
Despite the rain sweeping across the moors, Anne Lister set out on her adventure, stomping through the muck for hours until she reached Blackstone Edge. It was here that she finally spotted Mariana's carriage climbing its ways toward her. Drenched and dirty, Anne slipped into the carriage, only to find her lover fast asleep—but that wasn't all she found.
26. She Messed It Up
The surprise worked. Mariana was undoubtedly jolted by Anne's sudden appearance, but unfortunately, the carriage carried more than one passenger. In fact, three other people witnessed Anne's wild entrance: Mariana's sister, as well as another passenger and his maid. Her bungled surprise only sparked her lover's rage.
27. She Was An Embarrassment
Mariana was terrified that anyone would ever suspect her relationship with Anne, and the surprise seemed like a dead giveaway. Instead of being happy, she was downright enraged. But the insults didn't end there. Later, while spending a night together, Anne's self-confidence took a direct hit. Mariana pointed out how Anne's "masculine appearance" made it embarrassing to be seen with her.
These newfound barbs wounded their romance, and soon, it was beyond repair. Anne expressed her heartbreak in code, "Oh, women, women! I am always taken up with some girl or other. When shall I amend?"
28. She Started Over
1824 was a brand new year and saw Anne Lister in Paris. Dressed all in black with her head held high, she set out to charm her fellow Parisiennes and steep herself in the culture. There was so much to learn: the language, the lay of the land, and of course, the women. With so many rich and genteel ladies around, it was only a matter of time before Anne found her next lover.
29. She Shared Every Dirty Detail
Anne Lister had some pretty high standards, so she surprised even herself when she settled for the "ladylike and pretty" Maria Barlow, an untitled widow. However, her diaries from this time were absolutely titillating, boasting every sordid detail imaginable. In one of her more tamer entries, she wrote, "I had kissed and pressed Mrs Barlow on my knee till I had a complete fit of passion. My knees and thighs shook, my breathing and everything told her what was the matter".
30. She Had A Fling With A Parisian
The explicit details in Anne's diaries reflected a brief but impassioned affair. However, Maria didn't steal her heart as Mariana had, and after a short while, she'd grown tired of her. You see, Anne didn't have the patience for Maria's unpredictable temper and, without thinking twice, she kicked her to the curb. In the face of Maria's devastation, Anne didn't bat an eye.
After eight months in Paris, she'd had her fill—and now she hungered for even more freedom. She wanted to see new places and the idea of travel began to seduce her.
31. She Became An Explorer
Anne described her early travels as "wild but delightful wanderings"—but they were mere stepping stones to the adventures that stretched before her. The next 15 years would see her visiting over a dozen nations, and her manly pursuit of exploring would bring her to lands that women scarcely dared to tread. And it was about to get far more dangerous.
32. She Went On Dangerous Adventures
Anne Lister's next challenge was the Pyrenees. Only, this wasn't a relaxing trip. She wanted to climb the steep terrain, namely the Breche de Roland and Monte Perdido. Even with a smuggler for a guide, she forged ahead in her unladylike fashion, crampons on her feet and a walking stick in hand. When she reached the summit, she basked in the magnificent view.
Suddenly, every fantastical place she'd read about seemed more tangible than ever before. Of course, with Anne being Anne, her extensive travels only preceded her next ambitious goal.
33. She Became Fabulously Wealthy
It's no secret that Anne Lister considered herself a cut above the rest. She had very little interest in her hometown of Halifax and rarely stayed at her family home of Shibden. However, in 1836, she became the sole inheritor of the estate, and the money it provided allowed her to set her sights on high society. She wanted to rub shoulders with the rich and powerful—and she met the perfect woman to help her do it.
34. She Had High Standards
A woman named Vere Hobart absolutely entranced Anne Lister. Vere was everything Anne respected and longed for; she was the sister of the 5th Earl of Buckinghamshire and had every connection imaginable. However, Anne was only one of Vere's many awestruck admirers. At important events, she had no choice but to seethe on the sidelines as Vere danced the night away with other men.
Still, Vere had a soft spot for Anne and made her an offer she couldn't refuse.
35. She Got Her Hopes Up
Anne's infatuation led her to accompany Vere on a trip to the town of Hastings. But if she'd hoped to capture the lady's heart, she was in for a stunning disappointment. Once again, Anne just couldn't compete with societal expectations: Vere decided to marry an officer instead. The humiliation was tantamount, and Anne's future seemed bleaker than ever before.
36. She Had A Brutal Revelation
To Anne's dismay, she soon realized the cost of living rich—a dwindling bank account. For once, she'd reached far too high and her return to reality was brutal: "I have been an Icarus—but shall fall less fatally, for I can still live and be happy. Here I am at forty-one, with a heart to seek. What will be the end of it?" She had no choice but to end her free-wheeling travels and return home to Shibden, but luckily for her, it yielded a rather unexpected surprise.
37. She Beat Out A Man
Anne nursed the wounds of rejection by focussing on Shibden. She dreamed of restoring it to a warm and habitable home, and with her expensive taste, hoped to inject some luxury into its otherwise neglected appearance. Of course, this revitalization project went beyond aesthetics. She set to repairing the estate's finances, going head to head with other men in the business.
Her diaries revealed her keen eye for bargaining, and on one occasion, she shocked one of the coal merchants: "he was never beaten but by ladies and I had beaten him".
38. She Made Her Own Happiness
Against all odds, Anne succeeded in molding Shibden to her every preference. Where she'd once avoided the place like the plague, she now couldn't imagine a better sanctuary, writing, "I have been happier here than anywhere else". However, Anne would soon meet with yet another happiness. She had the home, but now she needed a companion.
And as we know, beneath her intimidating garb, Anne always had a hankering for romance.
39. She Met Her Dream Girl
Anne Lister had met the heiress Ann Walker when she was in her 20s, but when they met again 15 years later—the attraction was palpable. For Anne, at least, the quiet heiress seemed like the perfect partner, and her wealth was certainly a magnetic draw. With both of their fortunes, Anne wouldn't have to spare any expense. She could travel and finish her designs on Shibden.
Right from the get-go, Anne started fantasizing about taking Ann to bed—and she wouldn't have to wait long...
40. She Had A Scandalous Haven
Anne had built a private cottage on her estate's grounds—a dwelling destined to become a haven for carnal fun. It was called the moss house, and only weeks after reuniting, the women visited it together. When Anne put the moves on Ann, the passion went both ways. Later, she took to her diary, writing, "I really did feel rather in love with her in the hut. Perhaps after all, she will make me happier than any of my former flames".
As confident as she was with this burgeoning affair, Anne had been burnt time and time again, and she could only pray that, this time, it would be different.
41. She Proposed
After two months of secretly courting, Anne laid it all on the line. She made Ann a serious proposal, imploring her to move in with her at Shibden and to live with one another like a married couple. Together, they could share their fortunes. This was all Anne had ever wanted—but her lover's response filled her with unease.
42. She Had A Fickle Lover
After hearing Anne's proposal, Ann felt torn. There were so many things to consider. Agreeing to live with another woman was a monumental decision, and at the same time, she still mourned for the loss of her parents and her fiancé. Her emotions were everywhere. However, instead of turning Anne down, she made one simple request.
43. She Received A Disappointing Letter
Ann requested six months to consider the proposal. With bated breath, Anne waited in anticipation, but when the deciding letter finally arrived—it only led to more questions. The letter read, "I find it impossible to make up my mind". Vexed by her lover's indecision, Anne went on a trip to distract herself from yet another disappointment. Little did she know, Ann wasn't ready to throw in the towel just yet.
44. Her Dreams Came True
After months spent in Paris and Copenhagen, Anne Lister began the long journey home—but when she arrived, something glorious happened...To her astonishment, her lover was there to greet her with open arms. Ann had turned down a man's proposal because of her feelings for Anne. At the age of 42, Anne's dreams were finally coming true.
45. Her Family Knew All Along
Both women got down to business. They altered their wills and began readying for their lives together. Anne even confided her intentions to her family—but they weren't in the least bit surprised. In fact, for a long time, they'd already suspected Anne's preference for women. Feeling the rare support of her relatives, Anne had only to tackle the pain of her past loves.
46. She Cut Ties
Finding happiness with Ann allowed Anne to finally let go of Mariana and even Vere. You see, even though she and Mariana had never entertained a committed relationship, that hadn't stopped Anne from slipping back into Mariana's bed, time and time again. She had been Mariana's greatest mistress, but when Anne found a woman willing to live with her and truly love her—their longstanding affair came to a heartwrenching end.
47. She Committed Herself Entirely
Anne Lister and Ann Walker had a symbolic wedding in 1825. They went to the Church together and took the sacrament of communion. Although Anne had previously indulged in a wild number of trysts, this union ended her dalliances full-stop. In the wake of her "marriage," Mariana sent Anne an utterly heart-wrenching letter.
48. She Received A Heartbreaking Letter
As her final and greatest romance began, the love of Anne's youth came to a resounding close. Mariana's letter read, "The die is cast and Mary must abide by the throw. You at least will be happy". Without a backward glance, Anne took her new bride and set off on their romantic honeymoon in France and Switzerland. However, it wasn't long before clouds of gossip threatened to rain on their parade.
49. She Battled Ignorance
After the "newlyweds" returned home, Yorkshire began mocking the couple. Anne Lister was no stranger to being heckled for her manly appearance, her masculine ways earning her the moniker "Gentleman Jack". But people weren't afraid of being cruel. The living arrangement at Shibden provoked the ignorance of hateful townspeople, and soon, anonymous letters began to arrive.
50. She Struggled To Find Acceptance
The letters poked rudely at Anne Lister, addressing her as "Captain Lister". Even the newspaper had a go at the happy couple and a joking advertisement announced the union of "Captain Tom Lister of Shibden Hall to Miss Ann Walker". But even with the hatred of outsiders, Anne soon learned that marriage had challenges of its own.
51. She Had Marriage Troubles
Anne's strong personality often clashed with Ann's shy disposition. Her new wife was prone to depression and needed a good deal of attention. Additionally, Ann also fretted about the cost of the renovations. She doled out the money with increasing worry and hysteria. They were complete opposites, and unfortunately, their troubles didn't end there.
52. She Was A Lone Traveler
By 1838, Anne caught the travel bug once again—but her wife wasn't exactly enthusiastic about the prospect. She suspected that Ann often faked illnesses to get out of joining her on expeditions. As such, she went on many adventures by herself. However, she did manage to drag Ann along to one of her dream destinations...Russia. Unfortunately, what began as an exciting trip eventually turned into a nightmare.
53. She Didn't Want It To End
Russia was stunning, but after the bitter winter descended, Ann was desperate to go home. Instead of bending to her wife's desires, Anne insisted they continue their travels to the Caucasus, a far warmer destination. At first, the rich landscapes seemed to reinvigorate much of their shared happiness...but the trip was doomed to a heartbreaking end.
54. She Passed Suddenly
Anne Lister penned her last journal entry on August 11, 1840. She made some observations about the village of Jgali, followed by her tea time and bedtime. She had no idea that these lines would conclude her run of epic diaries. Six weeks later, an unforeseen tragedy befell the traveling couple: Anne became terribly ill and didn't survive.
Many believe that an insect bite triggered the fever that led to her demise. Of course, for Ann, the nightmare wasn't over yet.
55. She Had A Long Journey Home
Heartbroken, Ann faced a horrific pilgrimage home. With her wife's body tucked safely into a coffin, she spent the next eight months traveling back to Halifax. After Anne Lister's burial, Ann took over Shibden in all its intended glory. However, behind closed doors, her mental health took a frightening turn, pushing her relatives to make an extreme decision.
56. Her Wife Crumbled
With Ann's family's permission, a policeman, a lawyer, and a doctor broke into Shibden—and what they found was absolutely chilling. Transformed by grief, the lady of the house had shut herself away in a locked room. Ann seemed utterly disturbed, with papers spread around her as well as a brace of pistols. Recognizing her instability, they sent her to the very same lunatic asylum where Anne Lister's first love, Eliza Raine, still resided.
57. Her Legacy Almost Went Up In Flames
Later, one of Anne's relatives, John Lister, took up residence at Shibden Hall, and it was he, along with his friend Arthur Burrell, who finally cracked the code in Anne's salacious diaries. Scandalized by the findings, Burrell told Lister to burn every last journal. Luckily, however, Lister decided to keep Anne's work alive and kept the diaries stashed behind one of the home's panels.