A Woman to Know: Anne Lister

A violent longing for a female companion came over me. Never remember feeling it so painfully before. — Anne Lister

(image via Calderdale Museum)

Her neighbors in 19th century Yorkshire saw Anne as they would see any other noblewoman: a bit peculiar perhaps — never marrying and dressing in all-black — but otherwise normal, buying land to extend her family's vast estate and traveling throughout England. And Anne's diary that she kept that time would be normal, too, except for pages and pages of encoded script — a part-algebra, part-Greek cipher that rendered more than 40 years of writing almost illegible. In the 1980s, historian Dorothy Thompson took it upon herself to research all 4 million words in Anne's diary. Her research team pieced together bits of Anne's life, looking for the dangerous secret that would have compelled the Yorkshire lady to hide so much of her life.

Once Dorothy cracked the code, she discovered decades of secrets Anne had hidden between the lines of her otherwise-conventional diary — secrets about numerous love affairs with women. Anne would send pages back and forth to her former lover, Eliza, detailing passionate sexual relationships she entertained with schoolmates, noblewomen neighbors and more. She had devised her eccentricities — the black ensembles, the mountain-climbing, the constant traveling — to keep male suitors at bay. As she wrote in 1821:

Arranging & putting away my last year's letters. Looked over & burnt several very old ones from indifferent people ... Burnt ... Mr. Montagu's farewell verses that no trace of any man's admiration may remain. It is not meet for me. I love, & only love, the fairer sex & thus beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any other love than theirs.

Historians have called her "the first modern lesbian," and her decoded diaries are heralded as important documents about 19th century in-the-closet lifestyles.

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