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Diaries (Anne Lister)

19th century English woman whose coded diaries detail her romantic and sexual relations with women and a social circle in which covert lesbian relationships were frequent.

LHMP entry

Turning from literary descriptions of Romantic Friendship to how the concept was reflected in real life (although the two are hard to separate entirely), Faderman comments on how modern scholars seem to find it even harder to accept the nature of the latter than the former. Correspondence, such as that between Lady Mary Wortley Montagu to Anne Wortley is filled with expressions of love, esteem, and protestations of devotion.

Evidently the fame of the Ladies of Llangollen was such that it could induce even a male poet of Wordsworth’s fame to confine himself to the themes of romantic friendship. But the other male authors in this group wallow in the images of the mostrous lesbian seductress and the joys of sensationalistic lesbian decadence. The female authors are quite mixed: a satirical sterotype of a “mannish” lesbian, a diary with remarkably candid discussions of erotic relations between women, and a poem on the usual romantic themes.

The paper opens with a consideration of the use of the term “queer” in modern academia, combined with a more literal meaning indicating deviance from the norm. But then it dives into a somewhat unusual use of the word in the diaries of Anne Lister (1791-1840) who appears to use “queer” as a name for female genitalia—a use that doesn’t seem to have a clear origin or parallels.

In February, Anne strikes up a new friendship with a Miss Pickford whom she begins to suspect shares her inclinations with regard to her close friend Miss Threlfall. Like Anne, the neighbors comment on Miss Pickford for being an intellectual and somewhat masculine in effect. They nickname her Frank. In conversation, Anne makes coded references to subjects and authors to sound her out on sexual topics.

It is clear from Marianne's letters and descriptions of her activities that she has been making new friends, taking up new hobbies, and generally becoming less emotionally dependent on Anne. In the early part of the year, Anne is much concerned with managing the property she shares with her aunt and uncle, taking over more of the control. Tib comes to visit in mid January and is in poor health. In a month Anne is wishing the visit were over already and is tired of Tib's drinking and snuff-taking.

At the beginning of the year, Anne is once more being annoyed by strangers accosting her on the road and by impertinent letters. After yet another comment about an advertisement taken out in her name seeking a “sweetheart”, she consults a lawyer about the letters, but he advises her to take no notice of them.

In February she goes off to spend time in York with the Belcombes and Marianne. In March they are joined by Isabella (Tib) Norcliffe and it’s clear having all three women in one place is a bit uncomfortable.

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.

Anne is depressed after Marianne leaves in January. During a visit from Tib Anne tells her that she is no longer as interested in "sleeping with" other women. (Presumably based on the explicit pledges she exchanged with Marianne.) It's unclear whether this is meant to be euphemism or literal but the context suggests the former. Tib teases her about this and continues in the mistaken belief that she will be Anne's life partner at some point. But Anne continues to be less than honest with Tib about her commitment to Marianne, of whom Tib continues to be jealous.

The first part of the year was very quiet, but in April Miss Browne returned and Anne becomes quite attentive to her, despite considering her family vulgar. This resulted in comment as the friendship was between the two women alone and not between their families. Anne finds many excuses to encounter her casually but there are no formal visits. Halifax society begins teasing Anne about the peculiar relationship. Anne also records encounters with more lower class persons who mock her for her masculine appearance and habits.

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