Isle of Lesbos : Letters & Journals : Anne Lister's Journals


Anne Lister's Journals

Anne Lister was an upperclass Englishwoman from Halifax, West Yorkshire. She lived from 1791-1840, and would not be particularly notable except that she left behind her diaries, and along with describing her daily activities, these journals also describe her romantic relationships with women. Not "vaguely romantic", but clearly passionate and sexually-involved affairs that she pursued exclusively with women, throughout her life.

Anne's coded journals might have gone unexplored had not Helena Whitbread invested six years of her time carefully exploring and decoding them. Helena's book, I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister 1791-1840, offers the diaries as fascinating story of the "everyday" life led by an early 19th century lesbian. Engrossing reading, to say the least.

About Anne Lister, Helena says, "She became the first woman to be elected to the committee of the Halifax brance of the Literary and Philosophical Society because of her academic contributions to that soceity. She took an active interest in schools in the area and generally encouraged the spread of education. She managed her estates, dealt with the business of farming, and developed coal-mining on her land. Much of her working life was speant out of doors supervising workmen and, at times, tackling some of the physical tasks herself."

Anne died unexpectedly at 49, from a fever contracted while traveling in Russia.

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Journal Entries

Monday 29 January 1821 [Halifax]

Cutting curl papers half an hour ... Arranging & putting away my last year's letters. Looked over & burnt several very old ones from indifferent people ... Burnt ... Mr Montagu's farewell verses that no trace of any man's admiration may remain. It is not meet for me. I love, & only love, the fairer sex & thus beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any other love than theirs.

Thursday 8 February 1821 [Halifax]

Came upstairs at 11 a.m. Spent my time from. then till 3, writing to M- very affectionately, more so than I remember to have done for long ... Wrote the following crypt, 'I can live upon hope, forget that we grow older, & love you as warmly as ever. Yes, Mary, you cannot doubt the love of one who has waited for you so long & patiently. You can give me all of happiness I care for &, prest to the heart which I believe my own, caressed & treasured there, I will indeed be constant & never, from that moment, feel a wish or thought for any other than my wife. You shall have every smile & every breath of tenderness. "One shall our union & our interests be" & every wish that love inspires & every kiss & every dear feeling of delight shall only make me more securely & entirely yours.' Then, after hoping to see her in York next winter & at Steph's before the end of the summer, I further wrote in crypt as follows, 'I do not like to be too long estranged from you sometimes, for, Mary, there is a nameless tie in that soft intercourse which blends us into one & makes me feel that you are mine. There is no feeling like it. There is no pledge which gives such sweet possession.'

Monday 12 February 1821 [Halifax]

Letter ... from Anne Belcombe (Petergate, York) ... nothing but news & concluded, 'from your ever sincere, affectionate, Anne Belcombe.' The seal, Cupid in a boat guided by a star. 'Si je te perds, je suis perdu." Such letters as these will keep up much love on my part. I shall not think much about her but get out of the scrape as well as I can, sorry & remorseful to have been in it at all. Heaven forgive me, & may M- never know it.

Wednesday 14 February 1821 [Halifax]

From 1 to 3, read the first 100pp. vol. 3 Leontine de Blondheim ... It is altogether a very interesting thing & I have read it with a sort of melancholy feeling, the very germ of which I thought had died for ever. I cried a good deal over the second & more over the third this morning, & as soon as I was alone during supper. Arlhofe reminds me of C-, Leontine of M-, & Wallerstein of myself. I find my former feelings are too soon awakened & I have, still, more romance than can let me bear the stimulus, the fearful rousing, of novel reading. I must not indulge in it. I must keep to graver things & strongly occupy myself with other thoughts & perpetual exertions. I am not happy. I get into what I have been led with ... Anne. Oh, that I were more virtuous & quiet. Reflection distracts me & now I could cry like a child but will not, must not give way.

Sunday 18 February 1821 [Halifax]

George took to the post office, this morning, my letter to Anne Belcombe (Petergate, York). There was the following observation on the 2nd page...'You know I am not always happy; it is my misfortune to be singular in sentiment, & there lies the source of all that I lament in practice or in thought, & thence the deadly shaft that poisons my tranquillity. "But, mortal pleasure, what art thou in truth! The torrent's smoothness ere it dash below!"' Mary, Mary, if thou wert with me, I think I should be happy.

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Excerpts from 1822

Saturday 13 July 1822 [Llangollen]

Two kisses last night, one almost immediately after the other, before we went to sleep ... Felt better, but was so shockingly low last night I cried bitterly but smothered it so that M- scarcely knew of it. At any rate, she took no notice, wisely enough ... M- told me of the gentlemanliness & agreeableness of Mr Powis who, it seems, might interest Mmore than duly had her heart no object but C-, with whom she has had no connection these four months. Not down to breakfast till I I ... then, perhaps luckily for us, all in a bustle & M-off at 21. We were off in 1/2 hour.

Got here, the King's Head, New Hotel, Llangollen, patronized by Lady Eleanor Butler & Miss Ponsonby, in 44 hours ... Beautiful drive from Chester to Wrexham. It was market day & the town seemed very busy. Beautiful drive, also, from Wrexham here but I was perhaps disappointed with the first couple of miles of the vale of Llangollen The hills naked of wood & the white limestone quarries on our left certainly not picturesque. About 3 miles from Llangollen, when Castle Dinas Bran came in sight, we were satisfiede of the beauties of the valley but the sun was setting on the castle & so dazzled our eyes we could scarce look that way. The inn, kept by Elizabeth Davies, is close to the bridge & washed by the river Dee. We are much taken with our hostess & with the place. Have had an excellent roast leg of mutton, & trout, & very fine port wine, with every possible attention ... We sat down to dinner at 8-1/2, having previously strolled thro' the town to Lady Eleanor Butler's & Miss Ponsonby's place. There is a public road close to the house, thro' the grounds, & along this we passed & repassed standing to look at the house, cottage, which is really very pretty. A great many of the people touched their hats to us on passing & we are much struck with their universal civility. A little [girl], seeing us apparently standing to consider our way, shewed us the road to Plas Newys (Lady Eleanor Butler's & Miss Ponsonby's), followed & answered our several questions very civilly. A little boy then came & we gave each of them all our halfpence, 2d. each.

After dinner (the people of the house took it at 10), wrote the following note,'To the Right Honourable Lady Eleanor Butler & Miss Ponsonby, Plasnewyd. Mrs & Miss Lister take the liberty of presenting their compliments to Lady Eleanor Butler & Miss Ponsonby, & of asking permission to see their grounds at Plas Newyd in the course of tomorrow morning. Miss Lister, at the suggestion of Mr Banks, had intended herself the honour of calling on her ladyship & Miss Ponsonby, & hopes she may be allowed to express her very great regret at hearing of her ladyship's indisposition. King's Head Hotel. Saturday evening. 13 July. 'The message returned was that we should see the grounds at 12 tomorrow. This will prevent our going to church, which begins at 11 & will not be over till after 1. The service is principally in Welsh except the lesson & sermon every 2nd Sunday & tomorrow is the English day. Lady Eleanor Butler has been couched. She ventured out too soon & caught cold. Her medical man (Mr Lloyd for Ewyd] Jones of [indecipherable]) positively refuses her seeing anyone. Her cousin, Lady Mary Ponsonby, passed thro' not long ago & did not see her.

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Excerpts from 1823

Friday 11 July 1823 [Halifax]

Miss Pickford came at 61 ... staid with us till about 9 ... I talked rather more nonsensically last night. She owned to growing a little romantic now & then. Surprised me by hinting that Miss Threlfall would, perhaps, be jealous of me &, altogether, it absolutely occurred to me that, if I chose it, I could even make a fool of Miss Pickford. My aunt observes she looks at me as if she was very fond of me. She certainly softens down a little with me & flatters me both in word & action in every way she can.

Saturday 12 July 1823 [Halifax]

Could not sleep last night. Dozing, hot & disturbed ... a violent longing for a female companion came over me. Never remember feeling it so painfully before ... It was absolute pain to me.

Sunday 14 September 1823 [Scarborough]

M- & I went out at 4 & sauntered on the sands to the Spa & beyond it till near 5. Met the girls coming to say dinner was ready. Sat down to dinner at 5. In the evening, from 6-3/4 to 8, M- & Lou & little Charles Milne & I sauntered along the North sands as far as Scorby Mill. Darkish when we got back. Meaning to go to bed soon, came up to my dressing room at 9.50... Perhaps about 12-1/2 every door & window in the house seemed to rattle, which disturbed us exceedingly. At Ist, we thought someone [was] breaking into the house but the continuance of the noises & the pattering of rain soon ushered in a tremendous thunder storm. Very vivid, fast-succeeding flashes of lightning enlightened the whole room. After some time came 1 or 2 tremendous peals of thunder & the heaviest rain I almost ever heard. In the midst of all this, we drew close together, made love & had one of the most delightfully long, tender kisses we have ever had. Said she, in the midst of it, 'Oh, don't leave me yet.' This renewed & redoubled my feelings & we slept in each other's arms.

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Where to Learn More

Anne Lister, I Know My Own Heart, Helena Whitbread, editor (New York University Press; 1992)

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