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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #68g Whitbread 1992 I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister 1791-1840 (1822)

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 a staple of fan-fiction and alternate histories to imagine the intersections of key figures from literature or the past. How fascinating, then that we get a glimpse into just such an intersection when Anne Lister decides to make a pilgrimage to Wales to meet the famous "Ladies of Llangollen", who had become an icon of female romantic friendship in the late 18th and early 19th century. For those who hew to a narrow definition of what it means to be a "lesbian couple" there is an ongoing debate on "did they or didn't they?" It's clear from Lister's diary entries that her specific purpose in meeting them was that she saw them as a role model for the life she herself desired: to share a home, life, and bed with a beloved female partner. And, for what it's worth, Lister clearly leaned toward the "they did" side of the debate.

* * *

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.

One of Anne's aunts dies (not the one she lives with) and she and Tib quarrel over plans for the property and whether they might share it together. Anne alternates between making love to her and explaining that they wouldn't work out as partners, then is relieved after Tib leaves. The summer passes mostly with social encounters. Anne has conflicts with her Halifax neighbors over her snobbishness.

In June, Anne begins planning a visit to Wales where she hopes to visit Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Ponsonby (the famous "Ladies of Llangollen"). She asks friends who have been there what sort of introduction she will need and is assured that they receive "any literary person" who calls on them. Anne and her aunt take this excursion in July. She has a brief tryst with Marianne in passing at Northwich. Anne and her aunt enjoy a tour at the gardens at Plas Newydd but Lady Butler is indisposed and there is no personal meeting. Anne meditates on "dreams of happiness...many a vision of...hope" inspired by thinking about the Ladies and contemplating her future with Marianne. They enjoy the tourist sights at Bangor and are entertained by a prize-winning Welsh harper. Back to Llangollen, Lady Eleanor is still indisposed but they entertain Miss Ponsonby and are much taken with her. And then back to Halifax. When she writes Marianne about her trip and meeting Butler & Ponsonby, Marianne speculates on whether their relationship is purely platonic, Anne notes "I cannot help thinking that surely it was not [platonic]." She finds it more likely that a relationship such as theirs was "cemented by something more tender still than friendship."

In August, Anne travels with her father and sister to France, hoping to sort out her father's financial affairs by encouraging him to sell his estate and live cheaply abroad on the proceeds. Anne finds her father embarrassingly vulgar and would be happy to see him so far away. Much of her travel entries alternate between complaining of his behavior and detailing the food. Her father finds France not to his liking and the plan falls through.

In November Anne again visits The Norcliffes and simultaneously enjoys Tib's favors while discouraging her futile plans for their future together. Anne is still suffering from her venereal infection and there's a point where she's consulting a new doctor and has to use the "caught it from a toilet seat" excuse for how she contracted it.

Time period: 

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