Anne Lister diary transcriptions Anne Lister's diary 1828 Anne Lister's diary June 1828

Wednesday 4 June 1828

Readers may be disturbed or upset by what Anne Lister writes about her sexual behaviour in this journal entry. It’s important to take into account the historical and social context, as well as consider why Anne Lister may have written about events in the way she did. I would love to know readers thoughts on this journal entry. Please comment below or email me direct at

In understanding today’s diary entry I want to quote from Kirsty McHugh’s excellent article, ‘Sightseeing, social climbing, steamboats and sex: Anne Lister’s 1828 tour of Scotland’ (Kirsty McHugh (2018) Sightseeing, social climbing, steamboats and sex: Anne Lister’s 1828 tour of Scotland, Studies in Travel Writing, 22:4, 420-435, DOI: 10.1080/13645145.2019.1620430). I recommend reading the full article.

From Kirsty McHugh (2018) Sightseeing, social climbing, steamboats and sex: Anne Lister’s 1828 tour of Scotland, Studies in Travel Writing, 22:4, 420-435, DOI: 10.1080/13645145.2019.1620430):

‘Another way in which Lister’s tour account may draw on travel writing conventions, or may simply be compatible with her life writing style is the self-centred nature of her narrative. In aiming to present a reliable and authoritative narrator, manuscript tourist journals, following the conventions of published travel books, often appear slightly detached in tone, and tend to marginalise other voices, including those which made up the tour party. Lister’s diary for the period covering her Scottish tour contains many remarks on the people she meets and relays information she is told, but there is little direct speech quoted and Sibella Maclean’s voice is notably rarely heard. As in her tour narrative, Lister’s coded diary entries represent herself as the active partner, particularly as the initiator of sexual activity….

Anne Lister was almost certainly the instigator of a sexual relationship, but how accurately Sibella’s reactions to her approaches are portrayed is less certain, as is the more general dynamic between the two women. Anira Rowanchild (1999Rowanchild, Anira. 1999. “‘My Mind on Paper’ Anne Lister and Literary Self-Construction in Early-Nineteenth-Century Halifax.” PhD thesis, Open University. [Google Scholar]) and Lisa Moore (1992Moore, Lisa. 1992. “‘Something More Tender Still Than Friendship’: Romantic Friendship in Early-Nineteenth-Century England.” Feminist Studies 18 (3): 499–520.[Crossref][Web of Science ®], , [Google Scholar]) have identified a number of novelistic devices which Lister adopted in her self-representation and her presentation of events (especially seductions) elsewhere in her journal, and the power relationship played out on the page may reflect the relationship that Lister sought to establish rather than reality. Catherine Euler notes that Anne Lister thought it a sign of virtue in a woman that they showed some initial resistance to her romantic overtures (Euler 1995Euler, Catherine A. 1995. “Moving Between Worlds: Gender, Class, Politics, Sexuality and Women’s Networks in the Diaries of Anne Lister of Shibden Hall, Halifax, Yorkshire, 1830–1840.” PhD thesis, University of York. [Google Scholar], 339). In contrast, as part of her seduction technique, Anne Lister portrayed herself as a woman of the world, and told Sibella of her sexual adventures in Paris which she remarks in code “probably excited her” (1828Lister, Anne. 1828–1829. Diary 30 May 1828–15 Apr 1829, West Yorkshire Archive Service, Calderdale, SH: 7/ML/E/11. [Google Scholar]1829Lister, Anne. 1828–1829. Diary 30 May 1828–15 Apr 1829, West Yorkshire Archive Service, Calderdale, SH: 7/ML/E/11. [Google Scholar], 11).’

So here’s Anne’s diary entry for Wednesday 4 June 1828:

Two beds in our room last night, but mine very cold and perhaps not quite dry so went to Miss MacL. Began immediately to fidget. At last sucked her right breast. She resisting, but not preventing and not being angry, merely saying it was not fair as I endeavoured to get my hand down to her moustaches. Said she was not like other people, cold etc. She denied being cold but said it was not right, she had scruples, two females ought not. She could do all I wished if it was right. This led to a little conversation. I professing to respect her scruples etc etc and we went to sleep about three and a half. Awake at eight. Took no notice of scruples, began again. Got my hand down, she putting it off. At last I begged her to leave me alone. To my surprise she said nothing but did so and we lay till after ten and I had my right middle finger moderately up twice. She evidently struggling not to shew did not dislike and I persuading her I could not find out whether she liked me or not, that she was cold to me etc. However, she lay very quietly with my legs twined round her. It was her brothers friend Colonel Hepburn of the guards whom she felt the only inclination she ever did feel to love but they mistook each other. She had not seen him of sixteen years and did not care for him now, she had never loved anyone half so well as me. She certainly likes me and now lets me kiss her more freely. She looked a little modest this morning on getting up, but we have got over it very well. She does look oldish in bed in a morning and I don’t want to go any greater lengths with her. Poor M- what would she say? I begin to agree with her all women are vulnerable.

Breakfast at 12½. Had our landlord up. We meant to have gone by Loch Ard & Loch Chon down to Inversnaid & the ferry across to Tarbet. 15 miles from here to Inversnaid. A cart could not go near, even a horse just now, on account of the wet weather. Part of the road over a moss. The horses would be swamped. Impossible. Had best go & see Loch Ard return & take the advantage of the return chaise (a lady & gentleman just setting off to Callender) & go to Drummond (10 miles) tonight. Agreed. Miss McL- & I off in a cart (seat not on springs as yesterday) at 1 20/60. Fine return scenery. Wood & rock & heather. Approach to the lake very pretty, much or all of the wood felled a few years since & now either thriving oak shoots (very green & pretty) or looking too bare. Pass the lower & middle loch and ([illegible]) and got to the upper lake, Loch Ard, at 3¼.

Loch Ard engraving by William Miller after J Nasmyth 1843, published in Waverley Novels vol iii (Abbotsford Edition). Walter Scott. Edinburgh and London: Robert Cadell, Houlston & Stoneman 1842 – 1847

Drove a little way along the road by the lake side, cut out of the rock. A perpendicular height above us of, according to the Scottish Tourist 61/415, 40 or 50 feet. Thus got a view of the whole lake. The cluster of rocky islets hardly discernible so near the southern shore. Just just discern a little ruin of the stronghold built on 1 of them by Murdoch Duke of Albany. Rather windy. The lake not smooth enough to try the echo[1]. Very pretty lake but Colonel Thackeray had so raised our ideas we were disappointed. About 2½ round from the west end of upper loch and is Loch Chon. The road bad. Nobody goes to see it. They say it is not worthwhile. Not near so pretty as Loch Ard.

Eastern End of Loch Ard. Note the fly in the picture; the photographer notes that this was part of a swarm that ‘keeps you moving in this forest during the summer.’ Photograph by Iain Thompson / Eastern End of Loch Ard / CC BY-SA 2.0,

The morning showery. Beginning to rain so turned back (vid. Scottish Tourist 60-61/415). Looking about us 5 minutes & off home again at 2 25/60. At 3 stopped 5 minutes at what the lad called a vinegar mill. A pyrolignous acid mill set up about 9 years ago. The wood put into the furnaces in lengths of 6½ feet. Oak, beech, birch, the former (barked) the best & beech 2nd best. The wood steam from the furnaces condensed in cold water & run off into a trough to be twice more distilled & then sent to Glasgow to be fined (made fine). The wood comes out of the furnaces charcoal & is then burnt up with peats in heating the furnaces, which are in the shape of long hollow cylinders. Of course about 6½ feet long to take the wood. Put in split when more than perhaps a couple of inches in diameter. Do not make quite so much of the acid now as at first.

Raining more or less all the rest of the way back. Got home at 3½. Sat talking a while then wrote the whole of the above of today, which took me till 4¾ at which hour soaking rain. Then settled my account. Dinner at 6. Before & after till 8 5/60 wrote 1½ pages pretty close to M-. Then paid the bill & off in a Drummond return chaise at 8 40/60. The good woman of the house at Aberfoyle delighted at our having so much liked her highland cheese, wished had had the whole of it to give us & would make us bring away with us what remained (about a lb). Bleak, dreary, hilly road over moors & mosses. Rained the whole way. Tired horses. Did not get to the little inn at Drummond (Walter Buchanan) (10 miles) till 11 10/60. Rainy day.

[1] I think she may be talking about Echo Rock. Legend has it that Rob Roy’s wife Helen used the rock to confuse English soldiers as to the position of her band. I can’t find much information about this, so if anyone knows more please comment.

[2] It’s evident here that Anne had very wide general knowledge and had a very curious mind. I for one had to Google ‘Pyroligneous acid’ (in case you’re interested, Wikipedia has this to say: ‘Pyroligneous acid, also called wood vinegar or wood acid, is a dark liquid produced by the destructive distillation of wood and other plant materials.’ (

You can read the original diary entry here:

18 thoughts on “Wednesday 4 June 1828

  1. Ok, so I have a rather different interpretation – although admittedly this may be due to my deep affection (obsession?) for Anne Lister.
    In those times, there was not just a lack of language for lesbian attraction, there was a lack of cognitive understanding of it. If Anne had taken a more direct approach, stated her desires and waited for an invitation to initiate intimacy (as we do now), her potential lovers would have had no way to respond. Despite their obvious attraction to her, they neither understood or were even aware of the possibilities of that attraction. Her only recourse was to demonstrate to them, through a gentle upscaling of bedroom activities, what exactly she wanted from them.
    In most cases, their initial confusion and resistance melted away rather quickly. There are several occasions though when, being firmly dissuaded, she apologised and gave up the seduction.
    But I don’t think it is fair to label her as predatory when, due to the societal conventions she lived under, she had to employ rather unorthodox approaches.

    1. Thank you for this. It’s so hard a view on the morality of the actions of a person from another time (same goes for another class, place, society, etc). Personally I try to take all of these differences of perspective into account when reading Anne Lister’s journals, but I appreciate that some will still find reading accounts like this somewhat disturbing.

    2. If you read the work by Emma Donoghue you will find that there was language and that was known among Circles.

  2. “Took no notice of scruples, began again. Got my hand down, she putting it off. At last I begged her to leave me alone. To my surprise she said nothing but did so and we lay till after ten and I had my right middle finger moderately up twice.” Not sure I understand that part – Anne begged to be left alone ? but she was the instigator of the moves ?

    1. My reading is that Anne was frustrated that Sibella was not responding in the way she had hoped, hence asking to be left alone. Maybe she was annoyed, maybe her feelings were hurt, maybe she was pretending her feelings were hurt to get a reaction. Unfortunately we’ll never really know what went on or what either of them were truly thinking about it, we just have what Anne wrote in her diary to make of what we will.

    2. My take – AL asked MacL to stop resisting – MacL expressed discomfort with the situation, kept pushing ALs hand away, AL asks her to stop doing that.
      Unfortunately, I think this passage describes what we would consider today to be a sexual assault, particularly as MacL seems somewhat frozen in her resistance – which can happen when a victim feels completely trapped in a situation, and ALs description of an almost passionless non-event/satisfactory outcome of the encounter. – – I wonder though whether Anne’s unflattering self-honest account of this event was written (and kept) because she would use her diaries not just to record and remember events, but also to self reflect and ponder her own conduct.

      1. Oh yes, your reading of “I begged her to leave me alone,” makes sense, I hadn’t considered that. It’s certainly unsettling reading. AL’s earlier sexual behaviour towards Maria Barlow in Paris was described in a similar way. It’s an interesting idea that she may have used her diaries to reflect on her conduct. I’ll ponder that.Thank you for your contribution here.

        1. Can you point me to that description of Anne’s sexual behaviour towards Maria Barlow in Paris? I know that Whitbread refers to it as “predatory” but it’s her interpretation with which I disagree.

          1. It’s the period of time covered by ‘No Priest But Love.’ I have the Kindle version so I’m not sure of page numbers, but immediately before the period of time starting with the diary entry for 14 October 1824, Whitbread writes, ‘The encouraging response which Mrs Barlow showed to Anne’s flirtations with her and also, perhaps her vulnerability, offered an opening for Anne’s more predatory advances.’

      2. Re Shirl, I agree with your interpretation, I thought so too: Sibella MaClean was trying to stop/push away AL’s hand, when AL begged her to leave her alone, meaning stop the resistance.

      3. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I totally hadn’t seen that ‘leave me alone’ could mean stop pushing her away. It’s definitely a disturbing read. Interesting idea that AL may have used her diaries to reflect on her conduct.

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