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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #68d Whitbread 1992 I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister 1791-1840 (1819)

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.


It is easy to be sympathetic with Anne Lister's predicament. She desperately desires to find a female companion to share her life (and bed) with, but has to negotiate a social system that--even omitting the sexual aspects--does not recognize this as anything more than a sad last option for women who have failed to achieve an approved goal. It is less easy to be sympathetic with the way Anne treats her potential romantic partners on occasion. When you tease out the objections she has to various potential romantic partners, it's clear she has very high and somewhat contradictory standards. For example--although we haven't touched on this in the entries yet--she despises women with no intellectual interests, but then dismisses one candidate for being too much of a bluestocking and not womanly enough. One gets the impression that Anne wants a companion but definitely not a rival.

One might think that Tib would have been a perfect match for her: passionate, self-aware of her exclusive preference for women, clearly not financially required to marry (given that she hasn't), and personally devoted to Anne despite knowing of her other lovers. One can't judge the validity of the objections Anne has: certain personal habits, the likelihood that Tib would be accompanied by a dependent relative. Later in the diaries, Anne becomes very concerned about Tib's excessive drinking, but one wonders how much that was a response to Anne's rejection rather than a cause of it.

In the context of pop culture motifs about "female husbands" and the scattering of accounts of working-class women engaging in such marriages, it is fascinating to speculate on how serious the comment is about Tib marrying her in disguise. Was it meant to be an absurdity, mentioned only to make Marianne jealous? Or--had Anne's attitude been different towards Tib--might they have seriously considered it? The likelihood of success seems small, given the close-knit social circles they moved in. For such a marriage to be pulled off, at the very least they would have needed to remove to some place where Tib would not be known or recognized. But from the point of view of the LHMP, it's interesting that an upper-class woman could conceive of and express the possibility of marrying another woman in disguise.

* * *

It turns out that Miss Browne seems to be in love with a man that she's known for several years and is unhappy that her parents are set against him. It is becoming clear (even to the oblivious Anne) that Miss Browne has never seen Anne's interest as romantic. And after much internal conflict recorded in February and March, Anne's interest in her fades significantly.

Having saved up an adequate sum, Anne determines to travel in France as a distraction, perhaps with Tib or with her aunt. Letters arrive from Marianne but mostly stir Anne to think on how Marianne "will be worn out in service to another" by the time they would have any hope of sharing their lives, In May, Anne and her aunt indeed spent a month in Paris. In June, Tib comes to visit and though Tib was eagerly affectionate, various discussions made it clear that--to Anne--there was no future for them as a couple (in part because Tib was saddled with responsibility for an unmarried sister). With the growing disinterest in Miss Browne and the futility of making plans with Marianne, Anne's romantic prospects are looking low. Tib has something of an annoying habit of teasing: daring Anne to try kissing Miss Browne, and telling their friends about Anne's coded journals.

In August, despite her waning interest, Anne finally brings Miss Browne to Shibden Hall for a formal visit, during which Tib takes the opportunity of the three of them being alone in the garden to kiss Anne in front of Miss Browne and so give Anne an excuse to kiss Miss Browne in turn, which she does rather "moistly". Miss Browne is clearly discomfited by this. Throughout September, Anne comments regularly on how she will be relieved when Tib leaves and she can return to her routines, but also will be sad "left alone with none to love or speak to".

In late October, Marianne proposes a meeting while she is in transit with her mother and sister to Manchester and her husband will not be there. This puts Anne into a depression thinking that she'll grow old without finding someone to share her life, But she decides to go to Manchester after all, which occurs in mid November. They spend the night together and discuss their sex life and how it relates to Marianne's marriage. Anne feels that any commitment she had made was cancelled by Marianne's marriage. As if to hurt her, Anne brings up Tib's continuing interest, noting, "Tib would really willingly marry me in disguise at the altar". In the end of the year Anne is being bothered by a persistent (male) suitor--a stranger who has been writing her letters that she ignores. There is also an incident where someone put an advertisement in the paper in her name looking for a husband, evidently as a practical joke (or as harassment).

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While reading Danielle Orr's master's thesis, "Sojourn to Paris," that investigated gender theories much to my satisfaction Orr wrote a good bit about Anne Lister's trip to Paris beginning in 1824 until she left in 1825. It was in Paris that she met Mrs. Maria Barlow, described as being a very ladylike widow. During the peak of their affair, Mrs. Barlow mentioned more than once to Anne that she wished Anne would disguise herself as a man, and Mrs. Barlow said she'd marry her that way.

In addition to a good bit of (!!!) marks on her diary pages and descriptions of their lovemaking, Anne was very put-off by Mrs. Barlow's suggestion that she disguise herself as a man to marry Mrs. Barlow. In her journals, Anne Lister was confident on the subject of how she wanted to marry and live with another woman, and it was not as a deception.

Thank you for your fascinating writings on Anne Lister.

Do you know if the Orr thesis is available online? It sounds like it might be interesting. I realize that in last week's podcast when I mentioned the bit about Anne and the idea of a "female husband" I had confused the entry I mentioned above and was remembering it as Anne contemplating the disguise. (The difference isn't important for the point I was making, but I should have double-checked.)

It's interesting to try to figure out what Anne's choice of clothing meant to her personally. I know that the popularity of the "Gentleman Jack" tv series has spurred people to think of her as expressing a "butch" presentation, identifying as masculine to some degree. But as you point out, that idea is contradicted in places by her own writing. I'm planning a podcast that will talk about the evolution of the image of "mannish dress" as a signifier of same-sex interests and Anne provides some fascinating data on that.

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