A new ac­count of a pi­o­neer­ing les­bian life draws on a di­ary with graphic de­scrip­tions of sex in code

The Guardian - Review - - Non-fiction - Ruth Scurr

In July 2018 the first blue plaque to be en­cir­cled by the LGBT+ rain­bow was un­veiled at Holy Trin­ity church, Goodram­gate, York. The plaque cel­e­brates the life of Anne Lis­ter (17911840), a “gen­der-non­con­form­ing en­tre­pre­neur”, and com­mem­o­rates the “mar­i­tal com­mit­ment with­out le­gal recog­ni­tion” that took place be­tween her and her lover Ann Walker in the church in 1834. Con­tro­ver­sially, the word “les­bian” was not used on the plaque. Lis­ter, from a wealthy fam­ily, in­her­ited Shib­den Hall, a Tu­dor man­sion, near Hal­i­fax. She was closely in­volved in run­ning her es­tate, well-read, well­trav­elled, and the only fe­male co-founder of the Hal­i­fax Lit­er­ary and Philo­soph­i­cal So­ci­ety. She dressed al­ways in black and spoke openly in her deep voice of her in­ter­est in other women. Lo­cally she was mocked as “Gen­tle­man Jack”. “Does your cock stand?” some­one in the street once jeered, and anony­mous hate mail started ar­riv­ing at Shib­den Hall. An­gela Stei­dele notes that, even when phys­i­cally threat­ened, Lis­ter re­mained con­fi­dent that “God was on her side, as she was His crea­ture too”.

Stei­dele’s main source is Lis­ter’s di­ary, dis­cov­ered at the hall af­ter her death. The 24 vol­umes, be­gin­ning in 1816 when she was 25, cover ev­ery­thing “from Prus­sia’s po­lit­i­cal stand­ing in Eu­rope to the care of her toe­nails”. Ex­tracts were posthu­mously pub­lished at the end of the 19th cen­tury in the Hal­i­fax Guardian, un­der the staid ti­tle “So­cial and Po­lit­i­cal Life in Hal­i­fax Fifty Years Ago”. What re­mained un­pub­lished was the sixth of the di­ary that is en­crypted in a com­bi­na­tion of an­cient Greek let­ters and al­ge­bra. Ex­tracts from th­ese sec­tions, which con­tain graphic de­scrip­tions of Lis­ter’s sex life, first ap­peared in the 1980s, but to­day there are still pas­sages of the di­ary that have never been de­ci­phered or tran­scribed. Stei­dele makes grate­ful use of the work of five gen­er­a­tions of schol­ars, not at­tempt­ing fur­ther de­cod­ing but draw­ing to­gether Lis­ter’s “in­sub­or­di­nate life and loves in a sin­gle vol­ume”.

The first chap­ter be­gins with Lis­ter fall­ing in love with a class­mate aged 14 or 15. El­iza Raine had been born in Madras, one of two daugh­ters of an English by An­gela Stei­dele, trans­lated by Katy Der­byshire, Ser­pent’s Tail, £16.99 sur­geon and an In­dian, Tamil-speak­ing woman. Lis­ter moved on quickly to other lovers, while El­iza, af­ter fall­ing out with her adop­tive fa­ther, was com­mit­ted to a men­tal asy­lum for the rest of her life. Stei­dele says that Lis­ter may have “had a per­sonal in­ter­est in hav­ing her de­clared in­sane. Com­ing from a mad­woman, any con­fes­sion about their for­mer re­la­tion­ship would have borne less weight.” She spec­u­lates that El­iza may have been the model for Mrs Rochester, since Char­lotte Brontë, liv­ing and writ­ing not far away in Howarth, knew the Clifton asy­lum where El­iza was held.

An­other of Lis­ter’s early loves was Mar­i­ana Bel­combe, also a doc­tor’s daugh­ter. With Mar­i­ana, Stei­dele ar­gues, Lis­ter could be “the gen­tle­man she felt her­self to be”. But Mar­i­ana could not re­sist the ma­te­rial gains of mar­riage to a wealthy male suitor, 19 years older. She told Lis­ter she hoped to be wid­owed soon (her new hus­band was 44) and that they would then live to­gether. It was af­ter Mar­i­ana’s hus­band in­ter­cepted one of Lis­ter’s let­ters that she in­vented the spe­cial code for record­ing her sex life. Mean­while, he pur­sued his own ex­tra­mar­i­tal af­fairs and passed a vene­real dis­ease to Mar­i­ana, who in­fected Lis­ter. Stei­dele rea­sons that this must have been tri­chomo­ni­a­sis, which could be eas­ily treated with a course of an­tibi­otics to­day, but led her to seek a mer­cury cure in Paris.

Af­ter more love af­fairs and years of travel, Lis­ter came back to Sib­den Hall in 1832, de­ter­mined to make a ma­te­ri­ally ad­van­ta­geous mar­riage of her own, even though a union be­tween two women could not be legally recog­nised. Her prime prospect was Ann Walker, 12 years younger, the heiress to “new money” de­rived from steam-pow­ered weav­ing mills. Stei­dele crisply sum­marises the sit­u­a­tion: “Anne was in­ter­ested in Ann’s money; Ann wanted sex.”

By the time they in­for­mally cel­e­brated their wed­ding in Holy Trin­ity in 1834, their sex­ual re­la­tion­ship was fal­ter­ing be­neath the ex­change of rings and vows. As their pri­vate life dis­in­te­grated, they rented a pew and went to church to­gether to dis­play their cou­ple­dom in pub­lic. Fi­nally, to dis­tract them­selves from one an­other, they set off to­gether on ever more am­bi­tious trav­els, to the Pyre­nees, Rus­sia and Azer­bai­jan. In the wilder­ness, this un­con­ven­tional cou­ple mim­icked con­ven­tional eti­quette: “Be­ing a gen­tle­man, Anne al­ways in­sisted on giv­ing Ann the bet­ter place to sleep and gave her the best pick­ings of their meals.”

Lis­ter died in 1840, prob­a­bly from ty­phus, and Ann died in 1860 in the same asy­lum as Lis­ter’s first lover. Stei­dele’s steely ac­count of the lives be­hind the first rain­bowed plaque is a tri­umph of truth over fan­tasy. Lis­ter’s ex­tra­or­di­nary pi­o­neer­ing life de­serves to be re­mem­bered, even if, in Stei­dele’s words, she was “a beast of a woman”.

To buy Gen­tle­man Jack for £14.95 go to guardian­book­shop.com.

Gen­tle­man Jack: A bi­og­ra­phy of Anne Lis­ter, Re­gency Landowner, Se­ducer and Se­cret Di­arist

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