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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #65 Colclough 2010 “'Do you not know the quotation?': Reading Anne Lister, Anne Lister Reading”

Full citation: 

Colclough, Stephen. 2010. “'Do you not know the quotation?': Reading Anne Lister, Anne Lister Reading” in Lesbian Dames: Sapphism in the Long Eighteenth Century. Beynon, John C. & Caroline Gonda eds. Ashgate, Farnham. ISBN 978-0-7546-7335-4

Publication summary: 

The era covered by this collection begins at a time when female erotic relationships were viewed as "innocuous and impossible" (or perhaps, "innocuous because impossible") and extends to a period with a more anxious view of gender and of sexual transgressions, in a context of social changes around women's equality, marital choice, and a move away from a purely medical/physiological theory of lesbian desire.

Although most of the papers fall in the general category of literary criticism (and the language can be quite thoery-heavy), the evidence used is multidisciplinary. There is a discussion of the pragmatic and theoretical issues around the use of potentially anachronistic shorthands such as "lesbian" with a lean toward guarded pragmatism in labeling. The introduction concludes with a summary of the themes to come.

Colclough, Stephen. “’Do you not know the quotation?’: Reading Anne Lister, Anne Lister Reading”

Anne Lister is one of the most fascinating subjects within the topic of early 19th century lesbians. Did you know that there's a recent movie treatment of her life? I should schedule time for a re-view and review of it. (I keep thinking that if I were a more social person, it would be fun to organize a monthly lesbian movie night. But ... alas, the whole introvert thing.)

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The journals and correspondence of Anne Lister have proven an absolute treasure for the internal life of an early 19th century upper-class woman whose erotic life was unapologetically oriented towards women. [Note: I’ll be covering the published editions of Lister’s journals in a future entry.] But, as Colclough notes, the extensive scope of the material means that research publications using it are necessarily filtered and skewed toward the particular interests of the writer. And because of the unique nature of the material, those interests have most often focused on Lister as evidence for a pre-20th century concept of “lesbian identity”.

While not denying this necessary filtering, Colclough tries to sample across the grain of this focus on identity by looking at the themes of books and reading in Lister’s writings. The article is very rich in detail and analysis which cannot be adequately summed up here. In brief, he shows not only the central place that reading and “making extracts” from books had in Lister’s life, but how she used gifts of books, quotations from them, and discussions of them as ways of communicating her interests to other women and to sound them out on their potential reception. These “communications” not only included material directly referencing classical views on lesbianism, but also some of the more erotically daring works of her own time, such as the words of Byron or Thomas Moore. More subtly, she discussed philosophical works on the subject of women’s friendship as a way to introduce her own interest in long-term romantic relationships. There is also some evidence that Lister considered a deep interest in reading and literary analysis to be essential in a potential life-partner, and that at least one otherwise promising woman failed this test.

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