Anne Lister, portrait by Joshua Horner
The next few blogs will focus on women’s sexuality, the nineteenth century, and in particular the presence of lesbians in the culture, and how it all connects to one aspect of my Ph.D. studies, namely the status and role of women in the nineteenth century.
I was stumbling around HBO one evening in last month and came upon a series called “Gentleman Jack.” Since it was set in the nineteenth century and was about a mannishly dressed woman, I was intrigued. I love history and in particular, women's history. So I watched an episode. And I was hooked.
In case you haven’t heard of “Gentleman Jack,” it is the story of Anne Lister (1791-1840) who lived in Halifax England. Her family had land and a large, rather tired house called Shibden Hall. Lister was determined to restore financial health to the Shibden estate, but she could not achieve this without marrying a wealthy lover. And therein lay the difficulty. She was a lesbian and needed to find a wealthy woman who would enter into a relationship with her. Wearing mannish attire, physically vigorous, intelligent, and determined, Lister stood out in the town of Halifax as “queer” and often was the subject of loud comments and insulting mail.
The BBC series is based on Lister’s journals. The woman was an inveterate diarist. She took it up after she had been sent to live in the attic of her boarding school. The school's powers wanted to keep her from influencing her fellow students. Apparently, she was an unconventional person even then. To assuage her loneliness, she took to keeping a diary.
Lister continued to keep meticulous records throughout her life. In them, she reveals that she realized she was sexually attracted to other women at the age of 15. To keep her socially unacceptable feelings and experiences private, she journaled about them in a code that was a mix of “Greek and Latin, mathematical symbols, punctuation and the zodiac” so she could freely express her feelings and experiences. (Lister)
The code was indecipherable.
In the 1890s, her ancestor John Lister with the help of schoolteacher Arthur Burrell broke the code. The two men were utterly shocked at what it was hiding. Anne Lister had written details about her sexual relationships with her many female friends. Fearing for his family’s reputation, John Lister hid the 26 journal volumes behind a wall panel, and that was the end of that.
In the 1930s, though, when Shibden Hall passed into public ownership, Anne Lister’s journals were discovered behind the wood paneling. To preserve the volumes and to make them available for historical research, Lister’s diaries and a copy of the code were given by Arthur Burrell to the library in Halifax. The library, however, made researchers refrain from including anything about Lister’s sex life in published works.
Historians obeyed the library’s rule until 1982. That was when Helena Whitbread, a schoolteacher looking for material for a book, stumbled across microfilm copies of Lister’s journals. Intrigued by the copious use of code within them, Whitbread set out uncover what exactly it was that Lister felt compelled to hide.
By then the old agreement to remain silent about the content of the coded material had been forgotten. A library aide gave Whitbread a copy of the code and Whitbread went to work. In 1988, she published a book about Anne Lister and her relationships called I Know My Own Heart. (Lister)
Not only did Whitbread’s book set previous assumptions about nineteenth-century women and sexuality on its head, but it also revealed the presence of a lesbian subculture in Britain, something most scholars thought did not exist. (Lister)
Coming up on Monday: a nineteenth-century sex study that preceded the Kinsey report of the 1940s-1950s.
Have a good weekend!
“The Live and Loves of Anne Lister,” BBC, News.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder