Childhood & Early Life
Anne Lister was born on April 3, 1791, in Halifax, West Yorkshire, England, to Jeremy Lister and Rebecca Battle. She was one of the six siblings in the family. However, she and her sister were the only ones who survived till adulthood. Her father had fought for England in the American War of Independence and hailed from an esteemed family. Her mother was a housewife.
During her childhood, she received home education and learned to read and write. She was quite close to her aunt Anne, whom she visited often in her ‘Shibden Hall.’ There, she was also taught by a teacher named Misses Mellin. Anne later moved to York and joined the ‘Manor House School.’ There, she developed her sexuality, in her early teenage years.
She had developed a love for literature quite young. She read a lot of books, which inspired her to begin maintaining a diary of her own in 1806. She initially wrote on scraps of papers, detailing her affair with a fellow student named Eliza Raine, also known as her first love. It was also believed that Anne judged people by their taste in literature.
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Love Affairs & Career
In 1804, during her first year at the ‘Manor House School,’ she met a fellow student named Eliza Raine. They were both 13 back then and shared a bedroom together. They fell in love and started a roaring affair, without letting anybody know about it. Eliza hailed from a rich surgeon family.
Anne left the school after 2 years, and the affair came to an end, leaving Eliza heartbroken. Anne returned to school, but by then, Eliza had left. Eliza slipped into depression and was later admitted to an asylum. She had hoped to spend her entire life with Anne. However, Anne had already moved on with her life and had had sexual encounters with countless young women.
Anne also dreamed of becoming a rich woman, so she could do whatever she wanted to, without bowing down to society’s norms. Eliza was the daughter of a rich doctor, and Anne intended to inherit her riches. However, she later changed her mind.
Anne had been a tomboy ever since her younger years and also had an extremely “masculine appearance.” For most of early life, she was made to live in a secluded attic, where she developed the habit of writing in her diary every day.
She offered detailed accounts and was almost obsessive when it came to writing. She wrote about the time she would wake up every day and mentioned for how long she had slept, what she had had for breakfast, and whom she had met throughout the day. She also made sure to write everything she learned each day, such as Greek, mathematics, languages, and geography. However, the one feature that made her different from all other girls of her age was her unapologetic love for women.
However, while recording her sexual experiences with Eliza, Anne devised a code language, using Greek, Latin, mathematical symbols, and zodiacs.
Anne spent the next few years seducing women and enjoying multiple sexual affairs. She was an open lesbian by then and often wrote about her feelings and desires in her diary. She, however, never fell in love, and used most of those women just for sex.
Things changed when Mariana Belcombe entered her life. Anne fell madly in love with her. They lived miles apart, but they often traveled to see each other. When they were not meeting each other, they exchanged letters. Their romantic affair was kept a secret. However, over time, Anne became so obsessed with Mariana that she dreamed of marrying her someday and living together as husband and wife.
In 1815, Mariana married a rich man, and this left Anne infuriated. She wrote in her diary about her anger and sadness and called Mariana a “legal prostitute.” Anne went on to have affairs with more women, including Mariana’s sister.
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Mariana and Anne met about a year later, and their relationship was reignited. Mariana’s husband never doubted her, as back in those days, it was impossible to imagine a sexual encounter between two women. However, sometime later, Mariana began shaming Anne for her masculine appearance and said that she was ashamed of walking with her in public.
In 1836, her aunt Anne passed away and the ‘Shibden Hall’ was inherited by Anne. Anne became a landowner in Yorkshire and did as she pleased, having sexual relationships with elite women and traveling around the continent.
In 1819, at the age of 28, she made her first trip when she embarked on a 2-month-long trip to France. She had visited Paris several times during her lifetime. She also had a relationship with a widowed Parisian woman named Maria Barlow. Along with her aunt and Maria, Anne also made several trips to Switzerland and Italy.
She began a coal-mining business in Halifax, competing with the powerful money-men of those days. She was called “Gentleman Jack” for her “manly appearance.” However, Anne paid no heed to the haters and continued doing what she wanted, making money and loving women.
Anne had a brief relationship with a wealthy landowner named Ann Walker back in the 1820s. In the early 1830s, they got into a serious relationship. They ended up getting married in 1834. However, they never attained religious, societal, or legal acceptance.
She renovated the ‘Shibden Hall’ according to her own taste in design and lived there with Ann till her death.
Death & Legacy
Anne Lister passed away on September 22, 1840, while traveling across Eurasia with her wife, Ann. She was buried in Halifax. Her grave was later covered with a floor. It was rediscovered in 2010. Her wife became mentally unstable after her death and was put under a doctor’s care.
During her lifetime, she wrote about 4 million words in her diary. She had thought that her coded language was impossible to comprehend. Eventually, John Lister deciphered the codes used in the diary in the late 19th century.
In 1988, a few of her diaries were published by Helena Whitbread. Some of her other works were published in 1992. Several biographies have been written on Anne.
In 2011, the ‘UNESCO Memory of the World Programme’ instated her diaries into their register.
In 2019, ‘HBO’ produced a show called ‘Gentleman Jack,’ which was based on Anne’s life.