Anne Lister: History’s “First Modern Lesbian”

Lauded as history’s first modern lesbian, Anne Lister (1791-1840) lived a life outside of the strict gender roles in 19th century England. She was an independent and wealthy landowner, an avid diarist, and a recognizable figure in Halifax, England for dressing all in black, as was done by gentlemen of the day. Her diaries would become an important source of LGBTQ2IA+ history for England

Anne Lister was born on April 3, 1791. She visited her aunt and uncle frequently at Shibden Hall in Halifax. She moved in permanently in 1815, so when her uncle passed away a little more than a decade later, it was no surprise that Anne began to manage the estate. She inherited Shibden Hall in 1836 when her father and aunt passed away in the same year. 

Shibden Hall, the estate which Anne Lister inherited. Credit: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Anne might’ve been written off as a footnote in history—if even that—if not for her diaries, which she started writing around age fifteen to the time of her death in 1840. Her diaries equal 7,722 pages—over four million words! Much of her writing is coded using Greek characters and algebra to hide her lesbian lifestyle. 

Anne was attuned with her sexual attractions and desires, writing passages such as this

“I love and only love the fairer sex and thus beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any love but theirs.”

Anne knew who she was. She knew where her attractions lay, and she did not shy away from it. Far from it. She lived her life fully and unabashedly as herself, conducting several love affairs with women. One even resulted in marriage. More on that in a moment. 

One of her first sexual relationships happened while she attended the Manor School in York, a boarding school for girls from wealthy families and backgrounds. There she met Eliza Raine (1791-1860), a girl of Anglo-Indian parentage. She and Eliza were roommates and fast friends. Their friendship turned into a romantic relationship. 

After she and Eliza left the boarding school and slowly drifted apart, Anne didn’t find it difficult to court new lovers. She attracted women easily with her intelligence, wit, and charm. While Anne left a mark on the lives of many women, there was one in particular that captured her heart more strongly than any other. Arguably, Mariana Belcombe (1790-1868) was the love of Anne’s life.

Watercolor portrait of Anne Lister, probably done by a Mrs. Taylor, c. 1820. Credit: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Anne met Mariana at a house party at Langton Hall in 1812. Her attraction to Mariana, daughter to a Yorkshire physician who treated the mentally ill, was immediate. They conducted a passionate romance for the next few years, even going so far as swearing to live their lives together. Of Mariana, she wrote that she was the “mistress of [her] thoughts and hopes.” 

Their love affair ended abruptly in 1816 when Mariana agreed to marry Charles Lawton, a wealthy landowner far older than herself. Mariana’s agreement to the marriage might have come from wanting to avoid being placed in an insane asylum by her father, who happened to also place Anne’s previous lover, Eliza Raine, into a private institution. Anne wrote this in her diary in May 1817: 

“Sat up talking to my uncle till 11 o’clock about getting married… I took care to say, however, that I never intended to marry at all.  I cannot make out whether he suspects my situation towards M- [Mariana]… I begin to despair that M- and I will ever get together.”

Despite marrying and becoming mistress of Lawton Hall, Anne and Mariana continued their romance. Anne even accompanied Mariana and Charles on their honeymoon. They hoped that Charles might die early, considering his age, and that they could live together with Mariana as a young widow and Anne her companion. Their relationship continued under Charles’s nose until he found correspondence between the two hoping for his premature demise. He banned Anne from visiting Lawton Hall. 

However, Charles didn’t wield the power or influence to stop the lovers from meeting or corresponding. The relationship lasted for another six years, but when Charles’s mortality began to outlast their hope, Anne began affairs with other women. 

Portrait of Anne Lister by Joshua Horner, c. 1830. Credit: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

After the breakdown of her relationship to Mariana, Anne traveled to France, Switzerland, Germany, and Scandinavia to take her mind off of her bitter disappointment. She traveled again in 1829, enjoying Belgium, Spain, and Germany before returning to Shibden Hall in 1831. 

Despite losing Mariana, Anne was determined to find herself a lifelong love. In 1832, she wrote in her diaries

“There is one thing that I wish for… one thing without which my happiness in this world seems impossible… I was not born to live alone… in loving and being loved, I could be happy.”

In 1832, the year after returning home, Anne met Ann Walker (1803-1854), a wealthy heiress. Anne was 41, and Ann Walker was 29. Ann Walker was the daughter of a wool manufacturer with properties near Shibden Hall. Ann Walker was made wealthy by inheritances from both her parents and her brother, John. 

Anne began to court Ann Walker, despite not being attracted to her in the same way she had Mariana. She had this to say about her new quarry

“I shall think myself into being in love with her – I am already persuaded I like her well enough for comfort… Perhaps after all, she will make me happier than any of my former flames – at all rates we shall have money enough.”

Ah, be still my beating heart. More romantic words have never been written. 

Sarcasm aside, Ann Walker would become the most significant woman in Anne Lister’s life, if not the love of her life. The two Annes eventually moved in together at Shibden Hall. On Easter Sunday in 1834, they took communion together in York’s Holy Trinity Church. The two considered themselves as good as married

Plaque reads: “Anne Lister 1791-1840 of Shibden Hall, Halifax, Lesbian and Diarist; took sacrament here to seal her union with Ann Walker, Easter 1834.” Credit: Keith Seabridge, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0

They lived as a married couple, though their marriage was not recognized by any English laws. They even rewrote their wills to leave their fortunes to one another in the event the other died. Even a part of Ann Walker’s fortune was used to renovate Shibden Hall, adding the dramatic flourishes of a Gothic tower, waterfall, and lake

Anne Lister tried to develop a love for traveling in her new bride by taking her on a honeymoon to France and Switzerland. This might have worked to some degree, because they traveled again in 1839. They ventured through various countries, including Finland, Sweden, Norway, Copenhagen, and Germany. 

Tragically, Anne died on this final adventure when she caught a fever in Koutais, Georgia. She died on September 22, 1840, leaving behind a widow and her lengthy diaries. Ann Walker returned to England with her spouse’s body, which was entombed at Halifax Parish Church. 

Ann Walker, who had always been of fragile mental health, was placed in an asylum in 1843, ironically by Mariana’s brother, Dr. Stephen Belcombe. Really, the Belcombe men had a pesky and horrid habit of locking away Anne’s lovers. Ann Walker was later returned to Shibden Hall and died at her family home of Cliff Hill on February 25, 1854. 

Anne Lister’s legacy lives on through her diaries, which inspired the popular TV drama Gentleman Jack. She was locally given this nickname in her lifetime for her masculine dress and lifestyle. She broke through 19th century England’s stiff gender norms not only through the way she expressed herself through dress—wearing all black, as mentioned earlier—but in the way she unashamedly flouted convention. She lived as herself, which was brave in a time when women were under the control of male guardians, lacked bodily autonomy backed by English law, and were thrown into insane asylums for the slightest “weakness” or divergence from a lifestyle considered “normal” for the fairer sex. 

Truly, Anne Lister is someone to be admired and respected for rejecting gender norms in a time period when it was easier to mask and blend in as other women had done (take Mariana Belcombe). Even with Anne’s fortunate circumstances, such as inheriting Shibden Hall and its wealth, which lent her more independence than the average 19th century English woman, her ability to stay true to the soul that lived beneath her “womanly” flesh and bones in a rigidly patriarchal society deserves applause even today. 


The 19th-Century Lesbian Landowner Who Set Out to Find a Wife by Brigit Katz, Smithsonian Magazine

ANNE LISTER on Lawton Hall Estate

Anne Lister and Shibden Hall on Historic England

Anne Lister: The First Modern Lesbian by Rictor Norton

Anne Lister – Love Life on West Yorkshire Archive Service Blog

Gentleman Jack: A biography of Anne Lister, Regency Landowner, Seducer and Secret Diarist, Book by Angela Steidele

Gentleman Jack: The life and legacy of Anne Lister, Youtube Video from the University of York

Gentleman Jack: The Real Anne Lister The Official Companion to the BBC Series, Book by Sally Wainwright and Anne Choma

An introduction to Anne Lister (1791-1840) on Calderdale Museums

Lesbian love and coded diaries: the remarkable story of Anne Lister by Lydia Figes, Art UK

The Life and Loves of Anne Lister by Rebecca Woods, BBC

The real Gentleman Jack: the secret life of Anne Lister, Britain’s ‘first modern lesbian’ by Ellie Cawthorne, History Extra

The secret life of Anne Lister at Shibden Hall, Youtube Video from Calerdale Council

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