Anne Lister was undoubtedly one of the most unorthodox women of the early 19th century. She was an active and entirely unashamed lesbian, a scholar, a dauntless traveller and a resourceful businesswoman. As an example of what female tenacity could achieve in the pre-Victorian period, she might be seen as a fortifying ideal. But she was also manipulative and snobbish, often careless of the welfare of her tenants and labourers, and a belligerent ultra-Tory. Not only was she quite without interest in women’s political advancement, she was clearly not at all nice. One of the most engaging features of this selection from her writings is Jill Liddington’s refusal to make either a heroine or a witch out of this resolutely selfish woman. Nor does she allow Lister’s sexuality to dominate her account, as earlier editors have tended to do. Though Lister’s clandestine homosexual marriage with her fellow heiress Ann Walker is the most extraordinary event of the years covered here, its dynastic and economic repercussions figure as prominently as its personal significance in Liddington’s commentary. Nothing can make Anne Lister anything other than sensational, but Liddington is determined to show that she was something more substantial than a sexual curiosity.
Fortunately for us, Lister was as constant in recording her multiple interests as she was in pursuing them. Her diaries run to around four million words and thousands of letters and business documents have also survived. Two selections from the journals have already been published, theses have been written, a battery of academic articles has appeared. This devoted attention would have pleased Lister, for she had a well-developed sense of her own importance. She was born in 1791, into an old but far from dynamic Yorkshire family. The Listers tended to die young. If they survived, they often did not marry. If they married, robust heirs failed to appear. Anne had four brothers – two died in infancy, one as a teenager, and one, who had looked tougher than his siblings, drowned. Anne Lister, in this as in much else, was an exception. She never ailed. As her uncle James, installed in melancholy grandeur in Shibden Hall, near Halifax, had followed the family pattern in remaining a bachelor, she found herself unexpectedly in line for the property. Lister proved herself the very woman to make the most of her good fortune. She took firm command of the estate, established a hotel and a casino, began to exploit the coal on her land, and busied herself with the acrimonious political life of Halifax.
Liddington has selected a fragment of Anne Lister’s legacy – around a tenth of what she wrote over a period of just three years, as she reached her early forties. They were the years following the Reform Act of 1832, and one of the many good reasons for reading this book is to discover how the land-owning gentry in the North of England tried to defend their status and influence. But what gives these diaries their immediate appeal is their juxtaposition of something approaching an inclusive public record, incorporating weather measurements, business transactions, and transcripts of family letters, with interwoven sections in code in which Lister responded to the uncertainty of events and planned for the future with no thought of having to justify her nature or her ambitions. The diaries disclose an unusual degree of self-consciousness together with an unrelenting need for control. Her day-to-day life was hardly solitary. Yet she was lonely, and knew it. The society of equals was perhaps what she wanted most, and accounts for much of her unlovable wish for aristocratic company. Her sexual liaisons, even the ‘marriage’ with Ann Walker, failed to provide real companionship. And so she talked to herself. It is odd, now, to read these layered meditations alongside Liddington’s editorial comments, as she selects and directs our route through the journal entries. A strange polyphony of voices emerges – scholarly and liberal notes from Liddington, a formal and explicatory narrative from Lister’s uncoded writing, and a frank subtext from the coded interjections.
Female homosexuality was a phenomenon that was scarcely acknowledged to exist in Lister’s circles. Though her flirtations were noticed, and probably understood, no one seemed to object. This tacit complicity stood her in good stead when she found herself inclined to progress beyond flirtation, for what could not be admitted could not easily be condemned. As she moved into middle age, Lister was dissatisfied. She was rich, but not nearly as rich as she wanted to be, and she found herself without the funds needed to develop her bold plans for the property. Her isolation was becoming more burdensome. Choices were few. Professional work was closed to her, and though she briefly considered a life as a writer (‘to go to Italy and write something with references to the classics – not to look at a book on the subject till I have written my own’), she was never really tempted by the literary world. Many of the lesbian friends of her youth had by now opted for marriages of convenience, and this possibility also crossed Lister’s mind – ‘marrying for rank some old peer of seventy’. But it would not do. She could not face the hypocrisy, or the subservience, that such a match would involve.
Looking for a practical solution to these problems, Lister’s calculating eyes fell on her neighbour Ann Walker – 12 years younger than she was, single and affluent. Walker was Lister’s opposite in almost every way. She was emotionally vulnerable and inclined to languishing piety, badly educated, lacking in confidence, and by no means bright. Lister thought of her as an inferior, but was attracted by the freedom of action that her wealth would bring. ‘She has money and this might make up for rank.’ Her predatory speculations make it clear that she was not motivated by passion. ‘If she was fond of me and manageable, I think I could be comfortable enough with her.’ Walker’s cultivated invalidism was a drawback. Lister never had any sympathy with weakness. ‘If all her fortune could fly away and she had to work for her living, she would be well. A case of nervousness and hysteria. No organic disease. Thought I should be sadly pothered with her abroad, unless I had the upper hand – and ought not to pet her too much – but going abroad would do her good.’ The courtship did not run smoothly. Though the relationship soon became a physical one, Ann Walker seems to have inspired as much irritation as affection. The observations in Lister’s diary grow increasingly tart. ‘Yet still she talked of her sufferings because she thought it wrong to have this connection with me ... She will not do for me ... She had everything to be wished for but the power of enjoyment ... I never saw such a hopeless person in my life. “How miserable,” said I to myself. “Thank God my own mind’s not like hers.” ’
‘Walker’s objections to the union seem to have been primarily religious. She was frightened of eternal damnation. ‘It is not only death in this world, but a far worse death that I fear.’ ‘Why,’ said I to myself, ‘this explains all. The poor girl is beside herself.’ It may have been largely to placate these anxieties that Lister proposed a formal sanctification of the relationship. ‘It should be the same as a marriage & she would give me no cause to be jealous – made no objection to what I proposed, that is, her declaring it on the Bible & taking the sacrament with me at Shibden or Light-cliffe church.’ But Walker continued to prevaricate. At one stage, Lister lost patience altogether and packed her off to stay with relatives in Scotland. ‘ “Heaven be praised,” said I to myself as I walked homewards, “that they are off & that I have got rid of her and am once more free.” ’ It was soon clear that she was not free. She was perhaps fonder of Ann than she cared to admit, even to herself, and grew despondent without her. A trip to Copenhagen failed to have a cheering effect, despite the experience of being presented at the Danish court in a ‘black satin gown ... my thinnest black silk stockings & silk shoes’. Back in Yorkshire, tortuous negotiations with Walker continued. Both sides were holding back. Lister wished she could find ‘someone with more mind and less money ... I am weak about her. Oh, that I may get well rid of her.’ Yet sex between the two, enthusiastically recorded in the diaries as ‘grubbling’, flourished: ‘she was on the amoroso as usual and lay upon me and I handled and grubbled till I was heartily tired.’ Inch by inch, these cautious lovers committed themselves to each other. Walker overcame her hesitations and moved into Shibden Hall, and Lister proclaimed herself satisfied. ‘I think we shall get on very well. Nobody would care for me more or do more for me.’ Domestic exasperations persisted – ‘Never in my life saw such a fidget in a carriage’ – but their lives became irrevocably entwined.
Liddington makes it clear that financial consequences, not sexual deviancies, were what worried Walker’s friends and family most. Lister took practical charge of Walker’s assets, and the two women made plans to leave their property to each other. Ann Walker’s family, who had much to lose from these arrangements, was alarmed. Her brother-in-law, a penniless Scottish soldier who had married her sister for reasons very similar to those which had drawn Lister to Ann, was thrown into a fury of moral outrage at the threat to his own prospects of inheritance. Angry fulminations about the ‘selfish and wicked motives’ of his sister-in-law’s suspect friend followed, with no discernible effect. Lister was a powerful adversary, and Walker was not nearly as easy to bully as she would have been without such support. No doubt there was local talk, and some mockery. But Lister seems to have been oblivious to gossip, and she was in a position to shelter Walker, who did not often leave Shibden Hall. It was political or economic rivalry that occasionally triggered attacks of a more public kind. Lister was prominent in her support for the Tory candidate in the notoriously violent and murky 1835 borough election in Halifax, and had no qualms about intimidating her tenants into voting for him. The contest resulted in a dubious victory for her cause. Vengeance followed in the shape of a skit in the marriage columns of the Leeds Mercury: ‘Same day, at the Parish Church H—x, Captain Tom Lister of Shibden Hall to Miss Ann Walker, late of Lidget, near the same place.’ Lister passed it off lightly, but the implications for the social reputation of the couple – especially when the piece was reprinted in the Halifax Guardian and the York Chronicle – were clear enough.
No such unpleasantness, however, could discourage Lister from taking a full part in the rush to develop the industrial resources of the West Riding. She had especially high hopes of the Walker Pit, a small coal mine that she began to sink soon after her alliance with Ann. New to the business of mining, Lister encountered difficulties with digging and draining. The most serious obstacle, however, was the implacable opposition of Christopher Rawson, a local magistrate and banker, who had his own designs on the market for coal in Halifax. Hostilities erupted into sabotage. Lister had gear stolen from the pit. There were rumours of flooded shafts, and the deliberate blocking of air vents. Rawson’s men were accused of smoking Lister’s miners out of the pit with burning asafoetida, and Rawson was forced to apologise. Even the passive Ann Walker was drawn into the conflict, embroiling herself in a legal dispute over a well on her land, and foolishly allowing herself to be persuaded to poison the water with a tar-barrel rather than allow local inhabitants to use it. Feelings ran high, and at one point effigies of Lister and Walker were burnt. Lister threw herself into these skirmishes with considerable relish, and her diaries suggest that she enjoyed the excitement. But Walker, understandably, seems to have been distinctly shaken.
These events point to the roughness, and occasionally the violence, with which even the well-to-do people of West Yorkshire were capable of conducting their affairs. Branwell Brontë, another imperious Tory, was also burned in effigy two years later as a result of his intervention in local politics. Haworth is around twelve miles from Halifax, and Lister’s diaries shed a good deal of light on the kind of provincial society that gave rise to the Brontës’ fiction. It has been suggested that Anne Lister was among the models for Captain Keeldar, the wealthy and masculine heroine of Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley. It is easy to believe that she was, though her ruthlessness makes her still more like Emily Brontë’s Heathcliff. Whether or not the Brontës had heard of Anne Lister of Shibden Hall, they shared her world. Outspoken and obstinate, preoccupied with property and inheritance, proud and defensive in its rugged isolation from the refinements of the capital, it was a world where courage counted for more than sensitivity. Obsessive erotic fantasies, or schemes of revenge, easily took root here. So, too, did introspective gloom, for continuing good health could never be guaranteed on the cold, damp moors of Yorkshire. Lister, like the Brontës, saw many early deaths.
To her credit, Lister persisted with her attempts to escape this precarious and quarrelsome society. She longed to know about other – freer, more exotic – ways of living. It was hard to persuade Ann Walker, always in favour of staying put. But in 1839 they set off for Moscow, on their most enterprising journey to date. Walker’s wariness turned out to be justified. In Georgia, Lister was bitten by a fever-carrying tick, and died. It took Walker, the unlikeliest of adventurers, six months to bring the coffin home. She was now an exposed and vulnerable figure, as she struggled to manage the estate without Lister. The hungry Walker family circled for a while, then closed in. Within two years, they had Ann declared insane. Her sister organised her forcible removal to a private lunatic asylum, aided by the local police, who took a locked door off its hinges. The ‘Lunatic’ was never released, and died impoverished and alone. A nephew from Scotland inherited her property.