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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #68a Whitbread 1992 I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister 1791-1840 (introduction)

Full citation: 

Whitbread, Helena ed. 1992. I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister 1791-1840. New York University Press, New York. ISBN 0-8147-9249-9

Publication summary: 

Whitbread has decoded and edited the candid diaries of Anne Lister, and early 19th century member of the Yorkshire gentry who was self-consciously and exclusively lesbian in her romantic and sexual relationships.


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This volume covers 1817 to 1824: Anne Lister lived from 1791 to 1840 at Halifax in West Yorkshire, England. Born one of six children, to an upper class family, the deaths of her four brothers enabled her to inherit Shibden Hall where she then lived with her Uncle James and Aunt Anne (unmarried siblings) from age 24 on, leaving her parental home. Finances were difficult at first but she seems to have had a talent far careful management and eventually had sufficient funds to travel.

Dissatisfied with the limitations of Halifax society, she engaged in a program of self-education, studying classical and modern languages, science, history, literature, and philosophy. Her more eccentric habits of dress and behavior earned her the nickname of "Gentleman Jack" among her neighbors and, at times, attracted rude and sometimes threatening attention from strange men.

Her eccentricity went deeper than appearance. As she wrote in her journal in 1821 at age 30, on the occasion of burning the correspondence of a rejected male suitor, "I love and only love the fairer sex and thus, beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any other love than theirs." The uniqueness of her record lies not necessarily in the nature of her sentiments or her embracing of her desire for women, but in her meticulous record of those sentiments and actions--embedded in a larger context of every day life--and the assortment of design and chance that allowed that record to be preserved for us, not least by the obscuring code she used that may have prevented others from feeling the need to destroy the diaries.

And this is not the record of an isolated figure suffering from unrequited passions. A number of women returned her love in various forms, though not all had the resolution or ability to reject marriage and male courtship as she did. The two most significant in the period covered by the extracts in this volume were Marianne, with whom Anne maintained a mutually passionate love affair both before and after Marianne's marriage, and Isabella (Tib) who seems to have been as exclusively devoted to women as Anne was and who at one point hoped to become Anne's permanent partner.

Whitbread tackled the immense task of unraveling the cipher that Lister used for the more sensitive passages in her journals, as well as the more ordinary labor of transcribing cramped handwriting and expanding the frequent abbreviations. In this summary, I've confined myself to the entries touching on her emotional and sexual life, but the diaries are also fascinating for the portrait of a woman dedicated to an intellectual life in the absence of formal or social support for that goal. Even such covert topics as her romantic relationships are built up out of an extensive scattering of everyday interactions.

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