Gay History and Literature: Essays by Rictor Norton

Anne Lister
The First Modern Lesbian


If we need any evidence that the modern lesbian identity existed before 1869 we have only to investigate the life of Anne Lister (1791–1840), a well-off Yorkshire landowner. During the 1810s and 1820s she possessed a fully formed lesbian personality whose characteristics (except for the absence of a political consciousness) are easily recognizable to modern lesbians.

In her remarkable journals, large parts of which are written in a secret code combining characters from Greek and algebra, she records her systematic seduction of several women, and her awareness of herself as a lesbian (though she did not use that word) situated within a lesbian culture. This is the authentic voice of lesbian experience, worth more than a dozen volumes of abstract queer theory. Virtually nothing in the social construction model can help us to analyze this important document or to account for the lesbian awareness that is so obviously revealed in it. The decipherment and publication of these journals by Helena Whitbread in 1988 and 1992 was a culture shock, and a malicious rumour was started that they were a hoax, but abundant documentary evidence quickly established their authenticity.

Not only is Anne Lister a self-conscious lesbian in the psychological sense ('I love and only love the fairer sex and thus beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any love but theirs'): she is also a self-conscious lesbian in the social/cultural sense and a careful observer of lesbian 'signs' amongst other women. She went to Paris in 1824 to master French and to find a cure for a venereal infection passed to her by her English lover Marianna Lawton (who nicknamed her 'Fred') who, Anne believed, had caught it from her husband Charles, and which Anne had subsequently passed on to a Scottish woman she met in York. (The marriage of Marianna was a severe blow to Anne, but the two women renewed their sexual relationship a couple of years later.) The pension in which she stayed was a veritable hothouse of female friendship. She engaged in 'arrant flirting' with the young and frail Mlle de Sans, 'which she seems to like & understand well enough'. Her main object of desire is the older Mrs Barlow, whom she begins to seduce by passing off as foolish behaviour, kissing, touching of knees and playful 'nonsense'.

One of Anne Lister's techniques of seduction was to mention books which touched upon lesbianism or male homosexuality and then to observe her companion carefully to judge her reaction. In 1823 she remarks that 'Miss Pickford has read the Sixth Satyr of Juvenal. She understands these matters well enough.' Juvenal's satire was the locus classicus for the ancient world's description of both male and female homosexuals, often appropriated through allusion to become part of modern queer cultural unity. Lister's allusion to Suetonius being 'a little free' is not picked up by Mme Galvani, but in early October 1824, as Anne is flirting with Mrs Barlow, Miss Mackenzie, a visitor who is her match in the classics, passes her a confidential note:

'I have a question to ask you. Êtes-vous Achilles?' I laughed & said she made me blush. . . . Brought Miss Mack into my room. Joked with her about her question. Said it was exceedingly well put. She said I was the only one in the house to whom she could have written it, because the only one who would have so soon understood it, that is, who would have understood the allusion to take it that way.

The very clever allusion is to the incident in which Achilles dresses as a girl in the court of Lycomedes in order to escape the oracle that says he is to die in the battle of Troy. This incident exhibits a high degree of consciousness of the lesbian type among sophisticated women. A few days later, Mrs Barlow, who was as 'deep' as Anne in such things,

began talking of that one of the things of which Marie Antoinette was accused of was being too fond of women. I, with perfect mastery of countenance, said I had never heard of it before and could not understand or believe it. . . . I said I would not believe such a thing existed. Mrs Barlow said it was mentioned in scripture, not in the New Testament not Deuteronomy, nor Leviticus. I said I believe that when reduced to the last extremity — I was going to mention the use of phalli but luckily Mrs Barlow said, 'You mean two men being fond of each other?' & I said 'Yes' . . . I declared I was the most innocent person in the world concerning all I had seen & heard, for everybody told me things. She said she should not have mentioned it but she knew she was not telling me anything I did not know before. I said I read of women being too fond of each other in the Latin parts of the works of Sir William Jones. . . . In fact, she suspected me and she was fishing to find it out but I think I was too deep for her. . . . We agreed it was a scandal invented by the men, who were bad enough for anything.

Mrs Barlow is nearly as 'deep' as Anne, and both women relish this coy cultural seduction. By early November Mrs Barlow regularly sits on Anne's knee while Anne hugs and kisses her and rubs her through her petticoats until Anne's thighs shake and she experiences orgasm. Soon 'She begins to stand closer to me. I might easily press queer to queer. Our liking each other is now mutually understood and acknowledged.' Mrs Barlow regularly allows Anne to 'grubble' her 'queer' with her hand through a thin layer of petticoat while they lie in bed together and Anne presses herself against her and experiences orgasm. During the Christmas/New Year holiday they lie together naked and Anne is allowed to insert her finger and 'dawdle' Mrs Barlow until they both achieve orgasm.

Anne's generic euphemism for lesbianism is 'connection with the ladies', and her euphemism for full sexual connection involving full commitment is 'going to Italy'. Mrs Barlow's euphemism for Anne's orgasms is that she 'will do yourself harm'. Anne's use of the word 'queer' to denote the female pudendum is nowhere else recorded. It has no demonstrable link to the slang 'quim' for 'cunt', literally 'cleft'. Scores of slang terms going back to the mid-sixteenth century use the term 'queer', whose exact origin is obscure, though it virtually always means 'inferior' — perhaps Anne's application of the term literally to the 'nether' regions is the original meaning of the word. It seems likely, though etymologically unproven, that the male homosexual is called a queer in the sense of a cunt.

It is difficult to entirely comprehend the sexual act covered by Anne's euphemism 'kiss' (which like the French baisser can mean 'fuck'): menstruation is sometimes mentioned as a reason not to 'kiss'. 'Two good kisses at once last night & three this morning, after eight.' Presumably these are multiple orgasms: 'Three of four all at once last night & one more, a good one, at four this morning.' Anne joyfully discovers that Marianna is still a virgin because her husband is incompetent; Anne describes in detail how she uses her middle finger to break the membrane.

In sexual affairs Anne prefers not to be treated overtly as a woman. Anne does not like it when Mrs Barlow touches her queer and wishes to 'do to you as you do to me'. She is 'astonished' rather than angered, but unable to explain her feelings adequately. 'This is womanizing me too much. . . . she lets me see too much that she considers me too much as a woman. She talks to me about being unwell [i.e. having menstruation]. I have aired napkins before her. She feels me, etc. All which I like not. Marianna never seems to know or notice these things. She suits me better.' She and Marianna 'talked of the management my temper required. Marianna knew it well. It had its peculiarities but she did not fear. Talked of . . . my sensitiveness of anything that reminded me of my petticoats.' Anne seems to prefer a recognized gender division between giver and receiver, with herself as giver: in the 1940s and 1950s she would have been classified as a 'stone butch'.

Marianna was initially ashamed to be seen in public with Anne because the latter's masculine appearance was remarked upon by others. They are a butch/femme couple. A woman friend told Anne that Marianna is '"plus femme que moi" [more womanly than me]. I have the figure & nature of a man. Have not beauty but agreeable features tho' not those of a woman. I joked, pretended to be shocked.' Many people suspected things and talked about Anne's masculinity, but she and Marianna withstood it: 'For if we once got together the world might say what it pleased. She should never mind. . . . She shrank from having the thing surmised now, but declared that if we were once fairly together, she should not care about it. I might tell our connection to all the world if I pleased.'

Like many homosexuals of a later period, Anne realized she was different and tried to understand the nature of her sexuality. To Mrs Barlow she 'Said how it was all nature. Had it not been genuine the thing would have been different. I said I had thought much, studied anatomy, etc. Could not find it out. Could not understand myself. It was all the effect of the mind. No exterior formation accounted for it. Alluded to their being an internal correspondence or likeness of some of the male or female organs of generation. Alluded to the stones not slipping thro' the ring till after birth, etc.' Anne is aware of, but rejects as deficient, the early proto-sexological literature regarding lesbians as hermaphrodites. Although she did consult anatomical works (including Latin works), she is the instigator of her own attempt to understand herself — she is not a dupe coerced by doctors into seeing herself on their terms. She already has a powerful sense of identity, but is nevertheless endeavouring to understand its nature. 'Got on the subject of Saffic regard. I said there was artifice in it. It was very different from mine & would be no pleasure to me. I liked to have those I loved near me as possible, etc. Asked if she understood. She said no. I told her I knew by her eyes she did & she did not deny it, therefore I know she understands all about the use of a ——.' What Anne is talking about here is the use of a dildo, an artificial device which she feels is inferior to her own idea of natural lesbian intercourse. 'I mentioned the girl at a school in Dublin that had been obliged to have surgical aid to extract the thing.' (Horror stories of this nature are a feature of queer folk tales.) Nevertheless, in a later adventure when Anne seduces a coquette, she fantasizes about having a penis: 'Fancying I had a penis & was intriguing with her in the downstairs water-closet at Langton before breakfast, to which she would have made no objection.'

Anne is both secret and blatant; like many lesbians and homosexuals until relatively recent times, she openly assumes the liberties and manners of the opposite sex but is sufficiently clever to prevent an open accusation, at least to her face. Her flirting with women is so open and gentleman-like that several women of her acquaintance wonder if she is a man in disguise. She is aware that her sexuality is an object of discussion among friends and relatives, and Mrs Barlow asks what her maidservant thinks of her behaviour: '"Oh, merely, that I have my own particular ways." I happened to say that my aunt often said I was the oddest person she ever knew. Mrs Barlow said, "But she knows all about it, does she not?" "Oh," said I, "she & my friends are all in a mist about it."'

Anne's journals document features of lesbian culture that have no conceivable relationship to any sort of social control imposed from without. Anne wears an engagement ring and a wedding ring given to her by Marianna, and they go through a little ceremony of kissing these and swearing their love for one another. More remarkably, we discover that there is a tradition of lesbian lovers exchanging pubic hair with one another, just as heterosexual lovers exchanged locks of hair. Anne has a collection of these love tokens in her cabinet of curiosities, which she shows to Marianna and asks her to guess who they came from (one set even came from Marianna's sister). To celebrate their reunion, 'Marianna put me on a new watch riband & then cut the hair from her own queer & I that from mine, which she put each into each of the little lockets we got at Bright's this morning, twelve shillings each, for us always to wear under our clothes in mutual remembrance. We both of us kissed each bit of hair before it was put into the locket.'

An economic analysis of the situation reveals mainly that financial independence allowed Anne Lister to follow her own instincts. Capitalism facilitates rather than inhibits lesbian relations. The rise of capitalism, if it has any direct effect on homosexuality, allows its freer expression because of increased mobility, more tolerance of unconventional behaviour for those whose status is achieved through wealth rather than birth, greater independence through inheritance of moderate but adequate wealth without the necessity of marital or family alliances. Anne always knew that she could live practically in the open as a lesbian with a companion because her aunt and uncle were a spinster and bachelor sister and brother and she was destined to inherit the family estate and be independently well off. She drew quite a reasonable income from them, and discussed her affairs with them quite openly barring the explicit sex, comparing the different merits of her potential female partners; they looked forward to the time when she would fix upon a suitable female companion to live with her and settle down. Anne became her own master at the age of thirty-five, at the death of her uncle. But views such as that of Ann Ferguson that 'financial independence was a necessary precondition for the formation of a lesbian identity' (Vicinus 1993) are brought up short by the fact that the women with whom Anne Lister had relations were themselves dependent, either upon men or upon her, and some of them were nevertheless lesbian-identified.

Anne was a member of the petit-bourgeois, and most of her sexual partners had a lower social and financial status than she. Economic considerations were as important for Anne and her lovers as for heterosexuals. The affair with Mrs Barlow eventually failed partly because Mrs Barlow felt like a kept mistress rather than a wife. Marianna had originally left Anne to get married and thereby gain a higher income — Anne regretted what she termed 'legal prostitution' but nevertheless encouraged the marriage because of its obvious financial prudence; Charles breaks off friendly relations with Anne when he discovers that she and his wife hope for his early death so they can live together; later Marianna reinstates her relationship with Anne when she realizes that she is not going to have a child by her husband (who seems to be infertile) and that he has not put her into his will though she has signed her income over to him, which means she would be destitute at his death. Eventually Charles reconciles himself with Anne and resigns himself to her affair with his wife, facilitating their travelling together and feigning indifference when they sleep together even in his own house. Under pressure from Anne, Charles ensures that Marianna will receive a good annual income after his death. The two women often discuss the details of pooling their resources (including the anticipated annuity from Charles) during their passionate second honeymoon.

But Charles does not die soon, and after several years Anne tires of Marianna, especially after an affair with a sophisticated Frenchwoman in Paris. In 1832 she began an affair with a twenty-nine-year-old Ann Walker, a rich heiress who became her live-in companion, with whom she travelled widely and with whose money she reshaped her beloved Shibden Hall in Halifax, Yorkshire, which ought to be a place of lesbian pilgrimage. She caught a fever and died in 1840 in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia, and Ann Walker spent seven months bringing her lover's body back to England to be buried in the local parish church.

[An extensive archive of Lister's diary is available at From History to Her Story.]


(Copyright Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This article may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.)

CITATION: Rictor Norton, "Anne Lister, The First Modern Lesbian", Lesbian History, 1 August 2003, updated 13 June 2008 <http://rictornorton.co.uk/lister.htm>


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