In some ways Anne Lister was very much a woman of her time and class – concerned with status, respectability, wealth and keen to conserve the existing social order – in other ways she smashed through societal norms. In an era when women were expected to aim for little more than being wives and mothers, she declared early on in her life that she would never marry a man and was clear in her own mind that she ‘loved only the fairer sex.’ Her diaries show her growing self-knowledge and drive to be true to what she saw as her God-given nature, even if her unconventionality at times exposed her to ridicule and rejection. She was determined to be independent and in charge of her own life. Intelligent and curious-minded she educated herself and read widely on many topics, many of them considered unsuitable for women. She ran her own estate, business and financial affairs.
Despite not having the vote, she involved herself in politics. She travelled extensively, at times travelling alone. Terrier-like, despite her small build she was incredibly fit and active, walking for miles and even climbing mountains on her travels. She expressed her individuality through her dress, from the age of 18 always garbed in black. Perhaps what she’s most known for, particularly following the TV drama Gentleman Jack, she unashamedly (although in secret) enjoyed sex with women. Her unique spirit demanded expression; that she was able to do that and still more-or-less maintain her position as a respected landowner of an ‘old’ family makes her doubly impressive. Anne yearned for a woman to share her life with. She had several long-term relationships, the longest of which was with Ann Walker, who she married in a secret ceremony of her own devising.
Anne Lister wrote a detailed journal entry (often a wonderfully tedious level of detail) almost every day from 1816 until her death in 1840 (some earlier journal entries exist from 1806 onwards, but they are sporadic and much less detailed). The parts of her life she wanted to keep private – largely relating to sex and relationships, money and gossip – she wrote in a code of her own devising that she called her crypthand.
To learn more about Anne Lister check out Helena Whitbread and Jill Liddington’s excellent books containing journal transcriptions for 1817-1824 (Secret Diaries of Anne Lister, Helena Whitbread); 1824-1826 (No Priest but Love, Helena Whitbread); 1832 (Nature’s Domain: Anne Lister and the Landscape of Desire, Jill Liddington); and 1833-1836 (Female Fortune: The Anne Lister Diaries and Other Writings 1833-36: Land, Gender and Authority, Jill Liddington). Anne Choma’s Gentleman Jack: The Real Anne Lister covers the time period 1831 to 1834 and gives an overview of the events leading up to and including Lister’s marriage to Ann Walker.