She has been called “the first modern lesbian.” Anne Lister never apologized for her romantic pursuit of women, nor for her traditionally masculine mode of dress or her aggressive entrepreneurial style.
Lister was a complicated figure: her conservative political beliefs and social climbing would seem to contradict her radical lifestyle, and many of her brief romances led to personal ruin for her lovers. But she was a pioneer, and her diaries have many fascinating revelations.
Here are 42 defiant facts about Anne Lister.
1. Army Brat
Anne Lister was born on April 3, 1791, in Halifax, West Yorkshire, England. Anne’s father, Jeremy, was an officer in the British army who had fought during the American Revolution. Her mother, appropriately enough, was named Rebecca Battle. In many ways, they were a typical upper-middle class couple. But their daughter was anything but typical…
2. Small Consolation
Lister had one sister and four brothers. However, it was far from a bustling family by the time Lister grew into adulthood: Not a single one of her brothers survived into their 20s. It was a horrific tragedy, but it also gave Lister an incredible opportunity: the deaths of all these male heirs cleared the way for Lister to inherit much of her family’s estate.
3. This Old House
For generations, Lister’s family had resided at Shibden Hall, one of the oldest estates in West Yorkshire. The Tudor-style mansion was far from the most modern or fashionable estates in the county, but it had an illustrious history and beautiful grounds with 400 acres of farms, timber woods, and quarries. More importantly, Lister was completely in love with the house.
4. Young Love
When she was 13, Lister was sent to the Manor House School at York. At this tender young age, Lister fell in passionate love with her school roommate, Eliza Raine. The teenage girls were utterly devoted to each other, and even planned to live together once they grew up. Sadly, they were forced apart: officials discovered the relationship and expelled Lister from the school.
5. Cheater, Cheater
Lister was allowed to re-enter Manor House School after two years, but it was too late: her young love Eliza had already left the establishment. Even so, the girls had sworn to love each other forever, and Eliza was sure they would end up together soon enough. Instead, Lister dealt Eliza an absolutely cold-hearted betrayal.
In Eliza’s absence, Lister struck up a series of relationships with other girls in the school. When Eliza found out, she was so devastated that she had to be committed to an asylum.
6. Mutual Acquaintances
As if she hadn’t had enough sorrow already, Eliza Raine’s heartbroken asylum visit contained a horribly cruel irony. Her family sent her to Clifton Asylum, an establishment run by a man named Dr. Belcombe. This Dr. Belcombe just so happened to be the father of Lister’s latest romantic pursuit, a beautiful girl named Mariana.
During this time in her life, Lister was becoming confident, handsome, and utterly irresistible to many bright young women. In fact, Lister had been introduced to the lovely Mariana Belcombe by another of her conquests, a beauty named Isabella Norcliffe. Of course Lister later rejected Isabella for Mariana—again with disastrous results.
Forever stung by Anne’s cruel rejection, Isabella took to drinking and remained single the rest of her life.
8. In the Attic
Eventually, the school had enough of Lister’s rakish behavior and her trail of broken, beautiful hearts. The teachers and administration considered her seductive antics so disruptive that rather than allowing her to live among the general student body, they forced her to reside, utterly alone, in a dusty attic bedroom.
9. Book Club
In one letter to her aunt, Anne Lister wrote: “My library is my greatest pleasure.” Lister’s love of reading provided her with another method of expressing her sexuality: when meeting potential lovers, she would inquire about their reading habits. Lister would test the waters by mentioning writers whose works had overt homosexual themes, and then gauge her listener’s response.
10. A Head for Science
This pick-up technique wasn’t shallow, however; Lister had a voracious appetite for knowledge. Women were barred from universities, but Lister tutored herself in geology, algebra, astronomy, philosophy, literature, French, Greek, and anatomy. While traveling in France, Lister loved to attend scientific lectures, and she even eagerly participated in dissecting a human head.
11. The Lady of the House
In 1836, yet another tragedy struck the Lister household: Anne Lister’s aunt passed away. But yet again, the morbid turn of events were a windfall for Lister. With her aunt’s passing, Lister inherited her family’s ancestral home, Shibden Hall, in Halifax. Though Lister detested the provincial, close-minded Halifax, she threw herself into the upkeep of her beloved hall.
Upon inheriting Shidben Hall, Lister immediately began improving the grounds. She added vast gardens, a lake, and even hired an architect to built a gothic tower on the main building of the grounds, which she then used as a library. But that wasn’t all: Lister also constructed underground tunnels so she could avoid servants—and sneak in lovers.
13. Working Girl
Lister also preoccupied herself with many of the business and industrial ventures related to Shidben Hall. Lister was the landlord of several properties in the nearby towns, owned shares in the local canal and the railway, and owned several stone quarries and coal mines. There was no way in the world Anne Lister was going to be your typical lady of the house.
14. The Lady in Black
Lister was a conspicuous figure around Halifax. She usually wore heavy leather boots, constricting bodices, and carefully tailored long coats. As a rule, she dressed in black, which she felt gave her a masculine, angular look.
15. For Love or Money
In 1832, Lister met Ann Walker, a pretty and wealthy heiress. Walker was 12 years Lister’s junior and could be a very impressionable, passive girl. At the time, Lister was in dire financial straits but had always been unwilling to marry a man for stability— so she saw long-term relationship potential in Walker, who could support her without trying to dominate her strong will.
16. The Waiting Game
Lister invited Walker to live with her and join in a relationship almost immediately. Walker was reluctant, however. Her parents had recently passed away, as well as a fiancé, and she was worried about how the public would perceive the arrangement. She asked Lister to give her six months to think it over, during which time Lister went traveling in Denmark.
When Lister returned, Walker was waiting for her at Shibden Hall, with news that she had rejected a marriage proposal from a local gentleman. From that point until Lister’s death, Lister and Walker were inseparable. It may not have been a passionate love match from the start, but it was a love story in the end.
17. The Ladies of Llangollen
Lister was friends with the Ladies of Llangollen, two Irish women living in Wales whose eccentric habits and ambiguous relationship made them celebrities in early 19th century England. Though the Ladies denied any sort of romantic relationship, their unconventional lifestyle inspired Anne Lister to follow her own path.
18. Going to the Chapel
On Easter Sunday, 1834, Anne Lister and Ann Walker went to Holy Trinity Church in York. There they exchanged rings and took communion. The event is now considered the first lesbian wedding in England. It would be 180 years before same-sex marriage would be made legal in the UK, and the Church of England still does not recognize such unions.
19. A Secret Ceremony
For all the solemn ceremony, the exchange of rings and vows as done secretly. The minister at Holy Trinity Church that morning was unaware of Lister and Walker’s intentions, and the “marriage” was recognized neither legally nor officially through the church. Despite this, what it meant to Lister was very official indeed—though that day had a dark secret we’ll get into later…
20. Hot off the Presses
After the marriage, a malicious someone ran a notice in the Leeds Mercury, announcing the marriage of “Captain Tom Lister” to “Miss Ann Walker,” and congratulating the happy couple on their union. Lister recorded the announcement in her journal, noting that the prank was “probably meant to annoy, but if so, a failure.” There was no touching her wedded bliss.
21. Third Wheel
Shockingly, though, this was far from Lister’s first marriage. Years before her vows with Walker, Lister had previously shared a ceremony with Mariana Belcombe, going so far as to exchange rings as well. It did not end happily: Mariana eventually married a man, voiding the emotional union and crushing Anne—but that was far from the worst part.
Unable to let Mariana go, a heartbroken Lister even accompanied her newly-wedded friend on her honeymoon. Sounds awkward, to say the least.
22. Breaking Up Is Hard to Do
In spite of the marriage—and Lister’s brief affair with Mariana’s older sister—Lister and Mariana couldn’t stay away from each other. The next year, they fell back into bed with one another, despite the looming presence of Mariana’s new husband. Again, heartbreak was around the corner: it finally ended 1823, when Mariana decided she could no longer risk the gossip that followed them.
23. Love Sick
Lister’s relationship with Mariana was not without consequence for Gentleman Jack, either. Mariana’s husband, Charles Lawton, had contracted a sexually transmitted disease from one of his servants. Lawton then passed the disease on to Mariana who, in turn, passed it on to Lister. Three people really can be a crowd.
24. Church Lady
Lister was a devout Anglican, and she frequently thought about spiritual matters. Even so, while Lister considered her sexuality “an oddity,” she never questioned the morality of her behavior, and believed that her sexuality was part of God’s creation. Therefore, she reasoned, her impulses were actually perfectly acceptable, and it would be sinful to act against them.
25. Who Would Have Thought?
Defying all expectation, Lister did not believe in a woman’s right to vote. In one diary entry, Lister referred to early suffragettes as “demagogues” bent on “absurdity and ruin.”
26. Liberals Need Not Apply
This anti-suffragette stance wasn’t the only rather traditional belief the otherwise iconoclastic Lister held. Despite her progressive lifestyle, Lister’s political views were staunchly conservative in general. For example, she point-blank refused to rent property to anyone who did not vote Tory, the conservative party in England at the time.
27. Peak Performance
One of Lister’s favorite pastimes was mountain climbing. She is actually acknowledged as the first amateur climber to reach the summit of the Vignemale, one of the highest peaks in the Pyrenees. A Russian prince, however, claimed to beat her to the summit, and named the peak after himself. A nearby peak was later named in Lister’s honor.
28. Historical Drama
In 2010, BBC released The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, a miniseries that dramatized Lister’s relationships with Mariana Belcombe and Ann Walker. In the adaptation, Lister was played by Maxine Peake.
29. Jack Is Back
The electrifying life of Anne Lister returned to the small screen in the spring of 2019, when HBO premiered Gentleman Jack. Like The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, the television series uses Lister’s own diaries as the source material. This time around, Lister was played by Suranne Jones, who strides around luscious locations.
30. Filmed on Location
Much of Gentleman Jack was filmed at Shibden Hall, Anne Lister’s real-life, beloved residence. Since 1934, the Hall has served as a museum, and is dedicated to the history and folk culture of West Yorkshire. However, it doesn’t forget its roots: The hall bears two blue plaques from the English Heritage society, one for Lister and one for her wife, Ann Walker.
31. Gentleman Jack
Lister might have been tough and able to take it, but her unconventional style still made her the subject of much ridicule around small-town Halifax. Townsfolk taunted her in the streets, and mockingly called her “Gentleman Jack.” One anonymous tormentor even took out a personal ad under Lister’s name, seeking a husband.
32. Poisoning the Well
Lister’s tenants despised her, but not always without reason. For example, Lister and her tenants once feuded over the use of a well on her property. The community had used the well for generations, and a magistrate finally ruled that the well did indeed belong to the public. Rather than share, Lister dumped a barrel of tar into the well, making the water unusable.
33. Bridges Burned
Naturally, Lister’s petty response to the magistrate’s ruling infuriated the townspeople. They showed their displeasure by parading through the streets of Halifax, burning Lister in effigy.
34. Dear Diary
While at school, Lister first began keeping a diary, and she recorded the scandalous events of her colorful life in obsessive detail. She initially scrawled the diary on scraps of paper that she found lying around the establishment, but by the end of her life, it had grown to 27 volumes, and comprised more than 4 million words.
35. Tales from the Crypt
Given the potentially ruinous details of Lister’s private life and her sexual orientation in a staunchly conservative England, she devised a code for the more explicit entries in her diary. The code uses elements of Ancient Greek and algebra, and accounts for a good chunk. Lister referred to this code as “crypthand” and believed it to be unbreakable.
36. Writing History
Anne Lister couldn’t have known the impact her diaries would have on the world when she began writing them. In 2011, Unesco recognized them as “a pivotal document” and added them to their Memory of the World registry. The diaries have been called “the Dead Sea Scrolls of lesbian history,” but they are also well worth a read for insight into all aspects of Lister’s fascinating life.
37. If These Walls Could Talk…
As we noted, Lister believed her “crypthand” code to be unbreakable, keeping all her salacious secrets safe within her diaries. Her descendant, John Lister, tried to prove that wrong in the 1890s. He and a friend, Arthur Burrell, found Lister’s diaries hidden behind a secret panel while they were cleaning out Shibden Hall, and immediately set to work on cracking it.
38. Breaking the Code
John Lister and Arthur Burrell spent years trying to crack Anne Lister’s code. When they finally did, what they found shocked them. Burrell advised Lister to burn the diaries and never tell anyone of their contents, but Lister quietly returned them to their hiding place. It is suspected that John Lister may have also been gay, and so perhaps more sympathetic to the importance of his ancestor’s journals.
39. Lister’s Diaries Revealed
In 1983, decades after they were first uncovered, a researcher named Helena Whitbread rediscovered Lister’s diaries. John Lister was long gone, of course, so Whitbread had to start from scratch untangling Lister’s “crypthand.” By now, society was much more accepting of the themes and content of Lister’s diaries, and Whitbread herself oversaw the publication of the diaries in three volumes, I Know My Own Heart, No Priest but Love, and The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister.
40. Ticked off
In 1840, Lister and Walker took a trip through Eastern Europe. The pair had now been together for six long, happy years—but they couldn’t have known the tragedy that was to come. While hiking in Georgia, a tick bit Lister and she developed a fever, passing away quite suddenly shortly thereafter. She was only 49 years old, and the widowed Walker was still in her 30s.
41. Coming Full Circle
As per Lister’s will, Walker inherited Shibden Hall. Walker’s family, however, were convinced that she was mentally unfit. Once Lister was buried, her family broke into the hall, along with a doctor, a lawyer, and a policeman. Walker was armed, and seemed prepared to defend herself, but, in the end, she was taken away to Clifton Asylum.
Ironically, the same asylum that once housed Anne Lister’s first love now housed her last.
42. “I Do”…But Did She?
When Lister married Walker, it was a jubilant day—but it might have had a dark side. There is reason to believe that Ann did not recognize the significance of what she and Lister were doing. While the two maintained their relationship until Lister’s death, and had their wills altered to reflect each other as next of kin, Walker makes no mention in her own diaries of a marriage or similar union.
It may be that Walker could not conceive of such an arrangement in 1834.