The Lesbian "Dead Sea Scrolls": Anne Lister’s Diaries

Social Science, Philosophy and Religion Department, Central Library,
Portrait of Anne Lister (1791-1840), by Joshua Horner, ca.1830
Portrait of Anne Lister (1791-1840), by Joshua Horner, ca.1830

Anne Lister (1791–1840), often referred to as ‘the first modern lesbian,’ was a wealthy, independent British landowner, businesswoman, and prolific diarist. Her life has inspired the critically acclaimed HBO/BBC drama Gentleman Jack.

“The people generally remark, as I pass along, how much I am like a man”—written in Anne’s journal, June 28, 1818

Lister was said to have some masculine features and dressed in black with no feminine frills. Her flirtation with women was so open that she was sometimes mistaken for a man in disguise. Her business ventures placed her in society’s ranks with men. As a result, Lister became known in some local circles as “Gentleman Jack.” While there has been speculation about the sexual orientation of many historical figures, in the case of Anne Lister there is no doubt. Her multiple love affairs with other women, and her tactics for seducing them, were extensively chronicled in her many diaries, which comprise about 7,720 pages or around 5 million words.

“I love and only love the fairer sex and thus, beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any other love than theirs.”—written in Anne’s journal, January 29, 1821

The diaries began when Lister was 15 years old and continued right up to her death at age forty-nine, in 1840. Her earliest entries document her relationship with her first love, fellow student Eliza Raine, at the Manor School in York. Throughout her life, Lister wrote about everyday topics like weather, current events, business, and travel, providing an interesting insight into a woman’s life in 19th-century England. About 1/6 of her diaries detailing her most intimate affairs and sexuality were written in code. Lister developed this code, called crypthand, from numbers and Greek letters.

While she did not use the word, Lister was very in tune with her identity as a lesbian. Although she called it her “oddity” she was comfortable with her sexuality and pursued relationships with many women in hopes of finding a wife. Lister had many loves and partners throughout her life. Her last partner was Ann Walker, a wealthy heiress who owned a nearby estate. Beginning in 1834, the two began living together in Lister’s home, called Shibden Hall, in West Yorkshire, England. That same year they sealed their union by taking communion together at Holy Trinity Church in York. A plaque on the church wall now commemorates the event.

a rainbow plaque at Holy Trinity Church
A plaque at Holy Trinity Church dedicated to Anne Lister

Lister traveled extensively throughout mainland Europe and was an amateur mountaineer. In June 1839, Lister and Walker set out on a European tour. Lister had a lifelong dream of traveling to Russia, Persia, and Turkey, where she hoped to climb Mt. Ararat. By September 1840, they had reached Georgia, in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains. Here Lister came down with a fever (in some accounts caused by an insect bite) from which she died on September 22, 1840. Walker brought Lister's remains back to England, where they were buried at a church in Halifax, West Yorkshire.

After her death, Anne Lister’s diaries were hidden behind panels at her home. They were eventually discovered in the 1890s by the last resident of Shibden Hall, Anne’s relative John Lister. Part of the diary code was cracked by John Lister and a friend one night, revealing Anne’s lesbian life. John’s friend encouraged his friend to burn the diaries. At this time in the UK, homosexual acts between men were illegal and subject to severe punishment. Although lesbianism faced lesser repercussions, the discovery of Anne Lister’s true identity by the public would have been a huge scandal. Regardless, John Lister decided to keep the diaries, albeit rehidden in the panels of Shibden Hall.

After John Lister’s death, Shibden Hall became a museum and Anne Lister’s diaries eventually came to be housed at the West Yorkshire Archive Service. In the 1980s, researcher Helena Whitebread visited the archives and began work on decoding the diaries. She published two books of Lister’s diary, spanning from 1816 to 1826. The frank discussions of female sexuality led some to believe the diaries were a hoax. However, they were eventually proven to be real. The publications were hailed as an important piece of lost lesbian history. Author Emma Donoghue declared the Lister diaries as “the Dead Sea Scrolls of lesbian history.”

Watercoulor portrait of Anne Lister
Watercolour portrait of Anne Lister of Shibden Hall. Public Domain

In 2011, Lister’s diaries were added to the UNESCO UK Memory of the World Register in recognition of the cultural significance to the UK. The West Yorkshire Archive Service is currently undergoing a transcription project of Anne Lister’s diaries. The goal is to make every page of the diaries freely available for viewing by the public, as well as searchable by keyword and subject.

Anne Lister was a woman who lived on her own terms. She defied the role of women in 19th-century England. She was forward, independent, a landowner, businesswoman, traveler, athlete, and lesbian. Her diaries are a valuable chronicle of English life in the early 1800s and a fascinating insight into lesbian relationships of the time.

Social Sciences thanks Anne R. for bringing the Lister diaries archive to our attention.

Further Reading and Viewing From the Library

Book cover for Gentleman Jack: The Real Anne Lister
Gentleman Jack: The Real Anne Lister
Choma, Anne

Book cover for The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister
The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister
Lister, Anne

Book cover for Gentleman Jack: A Biography of Anne Lister
Gentleman Jack: A Biography of Anne Lister
Steidele, Angela

Book cover for Mad and Bad: Real Heroines of the Regency
Mad and Bad: Real Heroines of the Regency
Koch, Bea

Book cover for Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928
Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928
Vicinus, Martha

Book cover for Gentleman Jack: The Complete First Season
Gentleman Jack: The Complete First Season