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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #68f Whitbread 1992 I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister 1791-1840 (1821)

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.


The year 1821 provides a tour through Anne's very flexible notions of romantic and sexual fidelity. She finally makes what she considers to be a betrothal-like pledge to Marianne, symbolizing it by turning on their fingers rings that they had already given each other. And yet throughout this period Anne continues enjoying sexual relations with Tib and possibly others, and records her erotic attraction to at least one new acquaintance.

* * *

While staying with the Belcombes in York, Anne gives Miss Vallance a copy of her secret cypher while at the same time saying she is “getting lukewarm about her.” Anne returns to Halifax in mid-January. In February she writes a very loving letter to Marianne and refers to her as “my wife”. In May she records a sexual fantasy about a local woman Caroline Greenwood, whom she admires, and there are regular notes through the summer about her attraction to various women, though none of these seem to go beyond admiration. Yet in June, in the context of writing to Marianne, she once again notes that she considers herself pledged to her.

In July, visiting Marianne at the home of her brother in Newcastle, two notable things are recorded. After making love to Marianne, they exchange “an irrevocable promise for ever” and symbolize it with a ring that Anne had previously given Marianne. But in the same entry, Anne notes the suspicion that Marianne has passed on to her a venereal disease that she was given by her husband. And the symptoms and treatment of this take up a fair amount of attention over the next month (and it continues to be a problem for quite some time).

In September, Anne goes again to York and pays a great deal of time and attention to acquiring a carriage and horse. While there, she has a flirtatious encounter with Anne Belcombe though she notes to herself that she is “much altered” in attitude since making her pledge to Marianne. But when Tib Norcliffe comes to visit her there in York, it’s clear they continue their sexual relationship, both from Anne’s coded use of “kiss” (for orgasm) and from her concern afterwards that she might have passed the venereal infection on to Tib.

She is still in York in December when Marianne comes to visit her there (intending to return to Halifax with Anne at the end of the year). While still in York, there is again friction when Anne, Marianne, and Tib are thrown together. Anne is learning to drive her new carriage with only minor mishaps.

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