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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #68h Whitbread 1992 I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister 1791-1840 (1823)

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.


This year's entries include a growing acquaintance with a female couple that come into Anne's circles in Halifax, whom Anne eventually confirms have a romantic and sexual relationship. When considering lesbian-like characters in history, the question often arises: who are their models? Where and how do they see their lives reflected? How do they signal affinity to each other? How open are they able to be with each other about their lives? The early 19th century is often thought to pre-date the concept of lesbian identity (or homosexual identity in general) and yet there is a great deal of data here to contradict that and to indicate that women who desired women in this historic context did see themselves as participating in a larger community of sorts.

One entry in this year suggests a somewhat darker side to Anne's desires where she appears to be contemplating the potential for sexual exploitation of a woman applying to work as a servant at Shibden Hall.

* * *

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.

An incident mentioned briefly in passing (and as an interesting window on Anne's methods): Anne is interviewing a girl for a service position at Shibden Hall and comments about finding her attractive and the likelihood that "if I could contrive to have the house clear, might manage matters…"

Again with regard to Miss Pickford, Anne admires her learning but notes "I am not an admirer of learned ladies. They are not the sweet interesting creatures I should love." And she begins finding fault with Miss Pickfords dress and manners.

In April, again to York for a visit, mostly to get one of her horses trained for riding. Much socializing but not much in the way of romantic affairs. Back in Halifax, observing Miss Pickford and Miss Threlfall makes Anne depressed about Marianne. Anne's optimism about their future wanes at each separation. In July, Anne is confident enough about the nature of Miss Pickford and Miss Threlfall's relationship that she asks directly and is confirmed, but she does not share her own nature in turn. A few days later she has another talk with Miss Pickford and tells her about her own "particular friends", but is still disingenuous with regard to the sexual nature of their friendship.

In August, Marianne writes to arrange a tryst on her way to Scarborough. Anne is so eager and impatient that, rather than wait for her in Halifax, she walks out and meets the stage in the middle of the moors. Marianne is so disturbed by this bizarre act that she reacts very badly and the consequences preoccupy Anne's journal for some time to come. There is a great deal of reliving the event on paper throughout August.

Miss Pickford has become "Pic". Pic tells Anne a story of "putting on regimentals and flirting with a lady under the assumed name of Captain Cowper". In September stayed with Marianne in Scarborough but they quarrel over many little differences. Visiting with the Norcliffes with much attendance at balls and concerts. Then with Marianne in York but cool to her and unhappy that Marianne seems embarrassed to be seen with her. Marianne returns with Anne to Halifax and they discuss Marianne's finances and future. A letter from Tib discloses that she has picked up the venereal infection from Anne (presumably), which Anne feels guilty for. After Marianne leaves, Anne goes through her older correspondence and burns a number of letters but not those from Marianne or Tib. Not much else to the end of the year. Anne is beginning to think seriously of living somewhere other than Halifax.

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