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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 192 – Anne Lister’s Courtship Scripts

Saturday, January 16, 2021 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 192 - Anne Lister’s Courtship Scripts - transcript

(Originally aired 2021/01/16 - listen here)

I haven’t done a podcast specifically focusing on Anne Lister yet, in part because the topic is massively daunting. In contrast to most biographies of women who loved women before the 20th century, we not only have a wealth of knowledge about Anne’s life and circumstances, but we have her own candid record of her loves, her experiences, and what she thought about them. She is not always entirely honest with herself in her diaries, any more than she is honest with her friends and neighbors. But even in that dissembling she gives us fascinating glimpses of how she felt and what she believed.

This episode is not going to present an overview of Lister’s life—I’m going to make the possibly-overreaching assumption that anyone listening to this podcast is already familiar with her, either from the television series Gentleman Jack or simply from general chatter. But, in brief, Anne Lister lived from 1791 to 1840, solidly bracketing the period known as the English Regency. She was born into a well-to-do landowning family in Yorkshire. And she had a romantic and sexual orientation exclusively toward other women, which she recognized and wrote about in her extensive diaries, protected from casual revelation with a cypher-code.

Lister records a fairly large number of flirtations and sexual courtships. She had a determined goal to find and secure a permanent marriage partner—she uses the word marriage regularly and unselfconsciously—and many of her flirtations were aimed at sounding out women with this in mind. But she also had ongoing sexual relationships with women she had deemed unsuited to the role of wife. It may disrupt some listeners’ images of what lesbian experiences in the past were like to know that she moved through a broad network of women who loved women. Women in her close circles who were aware of each other’s sexual interests; women less closely acquainted who used carefully coded language to elicit and confirm their common interests; complete strangers who picked up on a sort of 19th century “gaydar” and engaged in socially-acceptable flirtation to identify potential partners.

This is the focus of today’s podcast. Given a woman whom we know to have been engaged in sexual relationships with women, what were her courtship scripts? How did she approach other women to elicit information about their knowledge and interest in the same? And given a show of interest, how did those courtships progress?

The Belcome and Norcliffe Relationships

Anne Lister’s most intense relationship, with Marianne Belcome—fractured by Marianne’s marriage to Charles Lawton—begins before the detailed diaries start and so fall outside the scope of this episode. Anne’s ongoing devotion to Marianne, and her vain hope that Marianne would at some point become free of her marriage and become her life partner, haunts every other relationship Anne engaged in. But the realistic understanding that Marianne was not available for anything but occasional sexual encounters, and the eventual realization that Marianne was no longer interested in something more, made Anne turn to other, more apparently available candidates.

Anne’s most regular alternate sexual partner was her neighbor Isabella “Tib” Norcliffe, but once again this relationship pre-existed the detailed diaries so we don’t get a glimpse into how it was initiated and its early progress. Tib is taken for granted as a fuck-buddy but although Tib might have been interested in a more primary relationship, Anne had concluded they wouldn’t suit.

Interestingly, there are other women in the Belcome and Norcliffe families that Lister seems to have had occasional erotic encounters with. Marianne Belcome had several sisters that Anne either flirted with or more. In November 1818, Anne was visiting the Belcomes in York and discussing with Marianne’s sister Lou how she “could not live comfortably without a female friend and companion.” Lou told her “You should not have let Marian marry.” And several days later when the subject comes up again between them Anne records, “Lou plainly said she liked me and in telling my sentiments towards her, when I talked of esteem and high opinion, she said she would rather have my love than esteem. I told her she did not understand my love and that she was too cold for me.” [Here it feels like Lister is hinting at a lack of sexual desire.] “She owned she appeared so but said she could convince me to the contrary but would not – fancied she could not tell me. She fancied from my conversation I wished to invite her to Shibden (in reality, no such thing ever entered my head).”

While Anne—whether sincerely or not—disclaims an interest in Lou, this is the flavor of conversation where such negotiations of interest took place. It feels very much like Lou is communicating knowledge of, and interest in, a more intimate relationship.

Ellen Empson and Miss Browne in Passing

Earlier in November, Lister had visited an old friend, Ellen Empson, and talked about feeling in low spirits due to the longing for a “companion—someone to take care of me” at which Ellen responds, “Why did you let me marry?” “What could I do?” Anne replies “You never asked me.” “Well,” said she, “That is true enough. I never asked anybody.” Anne thought Ellen was “a good deal interested.” She notes “Said I was odd but hoped I would not change.” This conversation gives no indication of any previous erotic encounters but shows how the topic of a life companion might be approached, as well as using possible code words like “odd”.

Part of what spurred these discussions of the search for a companion was the winding up of an interest in a local Halifax woman, Miss Browne. After asking mutual friends to arrange an introduction over tea, Anne began courting her with long walks and conversation. She sounds her out about tastes in poetry, asking if she likes Lord Byron. She gave Miss Browne the classical nickname Kallista and asked mutual friends what Miss Browne thought of her. Their friendship became the subject of local gossip, not for being too intimate, but rather because it was not a friendship of families. They did not visit in each other’s households, largely because Anne considered the Browne family vulgar and somewhat beneath her. After half a year or so, it comes out that Miss Browne has a gentleman suitor whom she greatly admires and Anne begins to cool toward her. But she was still enough interested that after half a year of cooling relations, Tib teases Miss Browne while the three of them are walking in a garden by kissing Anne, which gives Anne the excuse to kiss Miss Browne “on her lips, a very little, moistly” which embarrassed her and she said people would make queer remarks about kissing. Anne isn’t very quick about taking the hint even though Miss Browne is, at this point, engaged to her young man, but keeps trying to convince herself that Browne is secretly more interested than she lets on.

Playing Off Miss Vallance and Anne Belcome

There is a flirtatious encounter with another of the Belcome women, another Anne, in October 1820, when visiting with friends in York. Lister is making up to a different woman when Anne Belcome “observed my doing so with rather jealous eyes. She thinks me making up to Eli. Am certainly attentive to her but cautiously, without any impropriety that could be laid hold of. Yet my manners are certainly peculiar, not all masculine but rather softly gentleman-like. I know how to please girls.” And evidently using these methods to please a different girl made Anne Belcome jealous. A year later, there is evidently still something going on with Anne Belcome, for Lister has occasion to tell her she “had set me all wrong, unnerved me for the day, at which she seemed nothing displeased,” but Lister notes that although she felt something for her, she is “much altered in these matters since my more thorough engagement to Marianne.” There is more to it than that, for several years later, in June 1824, Lister is ruminating on several past relationships and mentions “my intrigue with Anne Belcome,” at which she comments, “Oh, women, women!” She continues, “I thought too, of Miss Vallance who, by the way, is by no means worse than Anne, who took me on my own terms even more decidedly. … I am always taken up with some girl or other. When shall I amend? Yet my taste improves.”

And who is Miss Vallance? In September of 1820, while visiting the Norcliffes Anne puts Tib’s nose a bit out of joint by paying a great deal of attention to a Miss Vallance: walking in the garden, talking. Tib—and let us note that Anne and Tib are sharing a bed during this visit, in all senses of the phrase—Tib “very kindly told me I was beginning to be too pointed in my attention to Miss Vallance, that observations might be made and I had better take care. Indeed, Charlotte joked and told me, a while before, she supposed the cronyism had now got to such a pitch I could not live without the sight of Miss Vallance.”

Now we come back to those “intrigues” with Anne Belcome, who was also visiting. To divert suspicion, perhaps, Lister paid some attention to Belcome. “Went to Anne…and stayed two hours. At first, rather lover-like, reminding her of former days. I believe I could have her again in spite of all she says, if I chose to take the trouble. She will not, because it would be wrong, but owns she loves me and perhaps she has feelings as well as I. She let me kiss her breasts.” But Lister is clearly distracted and thinking of Miss Vallance and Belcome calls her on it. “Now you are doing all this and perhaps mean nothing at all.” Yet several days later, “One and a half hour with Anne after she was in bed. Talking, at first, much in the same style as in the evening, just before, but then got more loving. Kissed her, told her I had a pain in my knees – my expression to her for desire – and saw plainly she likes me and would yield again, without much difficulty, to opportunity and importunity.” And a few evenings later, “Anne then came to my room, having expected me again in hers, and stayed almost till I got into bed. Her love for me gets quite as evident as I could wish.”

Lister parts with Miss Vallance in January with a “very affectionate” note from her. Anne is running hot and cold: she notes that she was not very tender to her and feeling lukewarm about the flirtation, and yet she gives Miss Vallance a copy of her cypher code, which she gives to very few correspondents and only those she plans to write indiscreet things to.

Fencing with Miss Pickford about Miss Threlfall

We see a different type of coded interaction in the beginning of 1823—not a flirtation this time, but a woman who pings Anne’s gaydar leading her to strike up a friendship and sound her out. Miss Pickford is something of a bluestocking—an intellectual—and she is accompanied by a friend, Miss Threlfall who has an independence and has chosen to remain unmarried.

Miss Pickford isn’t Anne Lister’s type. Lister herself leans to the butch side and is attracted to conventionally feminine women, while Miss Pickford, much like Anne, doesn’t embrace feminine performance. She declines to wear a bonnet and goes about in a riding habit and hat. Anne comments in her diary, “She is better informed than some ladies and a godsend of a companion in my present scarcity, but I am not an admirer of learned ladies. They are not the sweet interesting creatures I should love.”

But she senses common interests and drops hints into the conversation. When discussing linguistic gender, Anne brings up the gender-switching Tiresias in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. They discuss romantic poets such as Byron and Milton while attending a lecture together. Anne toys with the idea of making up to Miss Pickford for lack of any more suitable companion but keeps running into the problem that she isn’t romantically attracted to her.

The subject of Miss Threlfall comes up between then and Miss Pickford asks what Anne thinks of her. Anne notes, “This I would not tell for fear of being wrong, for I would not make a mistake in such a case for sixpence. Talking in such a manner that if there is anything particular between them, Miss Pickford might possibly suppose I had it in mind.” During a later conversation, Anne “rattled on as usual…in a style which, if she has much nous on the subject, might let her into my real character towards ladies, but perhaps she does not understand these things.”

After half a year’s acquaintance, their conversations begin hinting more directly. Miss Pickford talks of being of a romantic disposition and hints that Miss Threlfall might have cause to be jealous of Anne. A few days later, Pickford is uneasy at what she might have let slip. “She told me the manner in which I had spoken of Miss Threlfall on Friday evening had rather bothered her. I think, from her manner, she had something in her head about my alluding to a particular connection between [them], which she seemed to wish to contradict. I said she took my meaning too far, but I would be more careful in future. I certainly did allude to this but so covertly, I can talk it off.”

But two weeks later the subject of Miss Threfall comes up again and Pickford “allowed, or rather encouraged it a little, that I told her she coquetted on this subject and she did not deny that perhaps she did do so; that my remark was not unjust. She had been talking about being whimmy.” I’m guessing from the context that this means “having whims, being whimsical.” There’s a hint that it might be a coded phrase suggesting eccentric behavior? Anne continues that people thought her “whimmy.” “I said I was more whimmy in speech and appearance than reality. We agreed there were some subjects one could not be whimmy upon. Not, for instance, in early-formed close connections. The tie was strong. Said Miss Pickford, ‘I could not be so for I know I could break Threlfall’s heart.’ I took no notice of this but thought to myself, more than ever, what the connection between them must be. Miss Pickford has read the Sixth Satire of Juvenal. She understands these matters well enough.”

There’s a lot to unpack in that conversation, but we see the negotiation of hints and denials, gradually approaching a mutual understanding of recognition and knowledge. Juvenal’s sixth satire may be an odd choice for a sapphic touchpoint—it’s an extended misogynistic polemic—but includes at least one implied same-sex encounter.

A few days later comes solid confirmation. “Got on to the subject of Miss Threlfall. … Talked of the classics, the scope of her reading, etc. and what I suspected, apologizing and wrapping up my surmise very neatly till at last she owned the fact, adding, ‘You may change your mind if you please,’ meaning give up her acquaintance or change my opinion of her if I felt inclined to do so after the acknowledgement she had made.” Anne assures her that her opinion hasn’t changed, and notes, “I mused on the result of our walk, wondering she let me go so far, and still more that she should confide the secret to me so readily. I told her it would not be safe to own it to anyone else, or suffer anyone to talk to her as I had done. I think she suspects me but I fought off, perhaps successfully.” Anne dissembles and dodges the suggestion that she too desires women. Pickford, however, is not entirely put off, and a few days later she tells Anne that she had heard gossip about her and Marianne. Anne denies the relationship repeatedly, but in a friendly way and their friendship is cemented. She tells Pickford that she considers her connection with Miss Threlfall to be a “marriage of souls” and says many other things to show her approval. She wonders to herself how many more Miss Pickfords there are in the world than she ever before thought of.

This might seem a lot of detail to go over in this context, given that Anne was not technically courting Miss Pickford, but their interactions reflect many of the same strategies and progressions that we see the next year when Anne spends time in Paris and encounters Mrs. Barlow. And that is where our story turns next.

Courting Mrs. Barlow

This was at a time when Lister was estranged from Marianne and spent an extended stay in Paris to try to clear her head, as well as to see the sights. Mrs. Barlow, it is clear from context, is also sexually experienced with women, though Lister does not know this for certain when the courtship begins. The women are both residents at an all-female boarding house and much of the courtship takes place in public spaces with other women present, including Mrs. Barlow’s teenage daughter. As it progresses, it may take place in one of the women’s bedrooms. For Lister it seems to begin simply as an amusement to pass the time, though eventually they seriously discuss the possibility of becoming “married.” I’ll include some markers of the passage of time to get a sense of the progression of what was likely a very rapid courtship for her day and age.

Day 1: Lister arrives at the boarding house and meets Mrs. Barlow.

Day 20: They have progressed to mutual flattery. Lister has mentioned that she prefers the company of women to that of men, but this could be interpreted as meaning socially.

Day 32: Lister has begun flirting with Mrs. Barlow and with another woman (Mademoiselle de Sans). Lister describes this as “making love to her” but it’s clear this means only verbal interactions and perhaps some caresses.

Day 42: Barlow expresses jealousy of de Sans and refers to Lister as her “beau” (note that in French this is a male-gendered term). The flirtation with de Sans has included extending a purely social kiss with “a little more pressure of the lips.” Lister has not been open about her sexual past with women, but there is a sense that the other women in the boarding house have picked up on her interests and react with tolerant amusement.

Day 44+: A conversation among the boarding house residents turns to the subject of how Marie Antoinette was “too fond of women” with a clear sexual implication. Lister admits to having heard of this, but pretends that she doesn’t know how women could have sex together. They discuss how knowledge of sexual techniques and birth control comes to England from France.

Barlow mentions having read a book, Voyage à Plombières about “one woman intriguing with another.” Lister tells Barlow she is “half in love with Mademoiselle de Sans” and as this is while she is still disclaiming sexual knowledge, this should be understood as a thing one could say without suspicion. In this same context, Lister describes her longing for a permanent companion: “a person always at my elbow, to share my bedroom & even bed, & to go as far as friendship can go.” She has given Barlow a social kiss on the side of her neck and asks that it be her special spot.

While sitting with Barlow and de Sans, Lister “makes love” to Barlow by touching her repeatedly on the knee or with the foot. They stay up late talking about relationships and Lister puts her arm around Barlow. She interprets Barlow as being amoureuse (i.e., amorous). Barlow is present in Lister’s bedroom while she is having her hair done and Lister “put my arm round her waist & tried to pull her on my knee” but Barlow resists and Lister apologizes.

They alternate making moves and putting up barriers. Lister “jokes” about going to Italy to try the experiment of having sex with a woman. (There seems to be some implication that either willing women are to be found in Italy or that Italians don’t pay attention to what foreign women get up to.) At a later date, Lister uses the phrase “go to Italy” as a euphemism for “go all the way sexually” (whatever that means to her).

Day 51: While sitting together with Barlow and de Sans in de Sans’s bedroom, Lister puts her hand under Barlow’s petticoats almost up to the knee. Barlow whispers, “Do not yet,” but continues to allow it. When saying good night to Barlow, Lister puts her arms around her to kiss her and presses close to her “with her right thigh a little within my left, in contact – which she has never permitted before.” When they go out to the opera, Lister puts her arm around Barlow’s waist casually in public.

Day 71: Lister and Barlow invite each other to use their given names. If you want a symbolic touchpoint in the pacing of Regency-era courtships, I think this is a key event. They have negotiated a common erotic interest and begun kissing and petting. And just after this, the physical interactions jump up a notch. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that sharing given names marks that turning point. In private, Lister kisses Barlow on the cheek sufficient to raise a hickey.

Day 72: In Lister’s bedroom, with the door locked: “I had kissed and pressed Mrs Barlow on my knee till I had had a complete fit of passion. My knees and thighs shook, my breathing and everything told her what was the matter. … I then leaned on her bosom and, pretending to sleep, kept pottering about and rubbing the surface of her queer. Then made several gentle efforts to put my hand up her petticoats which, however, she prevented. But she so crossed her legs and leaned against me that I put my hand over and grubbled her on the outside of her petticoats till she was evidently a little excited.”

I should note in this context that Anne uses the word “queer” to mean vulva, but rather than being related to the modern sexual sense of queer, some historians believe it’s a variant of the word quim.

Barlow reaches into Lister’s bodice to feel her breasts, but Lister makes a comment indicating that she prefers to take the lead and doesn’t like her partner to reciprocate. (This seems to be part of Lister’s personal sexuality. There is evidence suggesting that Lister was similar to a “stone butch” in that she got her own pleasure out of being the active partner but was averse to a reciprocal relationship.)

Both Barlow and Lister sometimes express doubts about moving forward with the relationship but it can be hard to tell which are sincere and which are negotiation. Lister has private doubts whether Barlow would make a good life partner for her. They use the word “marriage” to discuss that possibility.

Day 74: Lister tells Barlow about her sexual history, starting with Eliza Raine in boarding school. She explains that she considers her desires “natural” and says that no “exterior formation” caused it, presumably alluding to the motif of the enlarged clitoris. They discuss “saffic regard” and Lister explains her negative attitude toward the use of a dildo, calling it “artifice” and akin to self-pollution (i.e., masturbation).

Barlow makes an interesting speech about how if Lister’s father had brought her up as a son, Barlow would have married her “as she is.” (Evidently suggesting a “female husband” arrangement?) While once again discussing “Sapphic love” (which Lister again associates with the use of a dildo), they “became rather excited.” Lister fondles Barlow’s breasts and her vulva (through her clothing), and tries to put her hand up under Barlow’s skirt but is rebuffed. “I felt her grow warm and she let me grubble and press her tightly with my left hand whilst I held her against the door with the other, all the while putting my tongue into her mouth and kissing her so passionately as to excite her not a little.” Lister suggests they’ve gone too far to go back now. “On leaving me, her face looked hot, her hair out of curl and herself languid, exactly as if after a connection had taken place.”

Note: “connection” refers to the sex act. “Languid” is something of a code word for illicit sex taking place. Lister has made a comment in her diary about “perhaps I shall have her yet before I go” suggesting that what they’ve been doing so far doesn’t constitute “having her.” There are several points where Lister implies that there is some clear distinction that would constitute “having sex” that hasn’t occurred yet, but I haven’t been able to pin down exactly how she defined it. My best approximation would be “being naked in bed together and bringing Barlow to orgasm” though it also seems tied up in the desire for a marriage-like commitment.

Day 76: Lister asks Barlow, “If I had no hope of making her dearer to me before I went” (possibly meaning “before I went away from Paris”?) Barlow responds, “No, never, till we are married.” This is, again, a curious response. Lister has repeatedly used the language of marriage for her relationship with Marianne (including having exchanged rings), but this suggests that women of the time in general saw same-sex marriage as a recognizable concept (even if not one with legal authority).

They get in bed together, fully clothed, and make out: tongue-kissing, fondling through clothes, pressing a thigh between the legs. Lister says she wished she could marry her right away, “then I could have my own way.” (Again, this implies a clear distinction that hasn’t been crossed yet.) Barlow knows about Lister’s devotion and commitment to Marianne and raises significant doubts about going further in the relationship because of that pre-existing commitment.

Day 87: Lister confesses to Barlow about the venereal disease she got from Marianne (who got it from her philandering husband). This becomes another reason for not “going all the way.” (Lister uses the phrase “going to Italy” for this meaning. I don’t know if this is purely a Lister-ism or if this was a more widely used slang term.)

Day 117: After the relationship continues a while on pretty much the same basis, Lister and Barlow (and Barlow’s daughter) move out of the boarding house into a place of their own in order to have more privacy. They now routinely share a bed, but they begin quarreling regularly about the future of the relationship and Barlow’s inner conflicts come very much to the fore.

Day 137: The relationship is beginning to fall apart and Lister is looking for a way out, but it continues on in this state for quite some time.

Day 200: This seems to be the final straw after a long period of discomfort. They are still regularly sharing a bed and Lister is bringing Barlow to orgasm regularly. “A strong excitement last night just after getting into bed. She said again this morning, it was the best she had ever had. Had a very good one an hour before we got up, slumbering all the while afterwards. In getting out of bed, she suddenly touching my queer, I started back.” Lister is upset and unhappy that Barlow wants to touch her vulva and move to a more reciprocal physical relationship. Barlow says she thinks the reaction is because Lister is still “innocent” in that way, but Lister writes in her diary that it “womanizes” her too much. That is, Lister’s understanding of her gender identity precludes allowing herself to be the “passive” partner in sex.

Day 212: Lister leaves Paris, leaving Barlow behind. They pay lip service to meeting again in England, but the relationship is functionally over.

Total time from first meeting as strangers, through courtship, initiation of a sexual relationship, moving in together, discussing marriage, to breakup: 7 months. It took a third of that time to get to being on a first name basis and move from flirtation and sounding-out to the beginnings of serious erotic activity.


While Anne Lister’s experiences and strategies are unlikely to have been universal for women who loved women in the Regency era, her records give us a startlingly candid picture of how a woman might pursue sapphic relationships in a context where so much about sexuality went unspoken, both for reasons of social stigma and from the lack of a universal vocabulary to communicate such concepts. In many ways, Lister was startlingly forthright. In other ways, she was reticent and even disingenuous in order to manage what other people knew and thought about her. But if you’ve ever wondered how women in earlier eras might go about finding kindred souls, and how they negotiated the transition from friendship to desire, Anne Lister’s diaries are full of fascinating examples.

Note on the Sources

The quotations from Lister’s diaries used in this episode have been taken from two volumes of diary excerpts transcribed and edited by Helena Whitbread: I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister 1791-1840 and No Priest but Love: The Journals of Anne Lister from 1824-1826. The first is an overview of the entire run of diaries, while the second focuses on the period when Lister traveled to Paris and became involved with Mrs. Barlow, plus the period of their continued contact afterward.

Show Notes

A guided tour through the relationships of a Regency-era lesbian.

In this episode we talk about:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: