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The lesbian Dead Sea Scrolls: Anne Lister's diaries

“I love and only love the fairer sex and thus, beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any other love than theirs.”

Sappho, a Greek lyric poet, born on the island of Lesbos. Photo: Mark Ynys-Mon.

Behind the dark, glossy panelling lies a door. Step through it, and you leave behind the hall’s twisting balustrades and oil paintings to descend a short flight of dusty steps into the gloom. As the electric light clicks on, the underground passage is revealed – brick-lined, wide enough and high enough that there’s no need to cringe or creep as you move along it. This is a secret passage, but it is not secretive.

The tunnel is one of many improvements Anne Lister made to Shibden Hall when she inherited it in 1826. The 15th-century manor house stands over what she called the “old bank” from Halifax itself, set high on the side of its own valley. At one time, much of the surrounding land belonged to the Lister family.

From the front door, you can see woods, fields, farms, hills – a breathtaking view of a Yorkshire landscape, yes, but also an ever-present reminder that the mistress of Shibden wasn’t just playing house. Her tunnel was probably dug by workers seconded from her coal mines and it was intended to give her servants a means of getting from one end of the house to the other without their employer having to lay eyes on them. Anne Lister was very conscious of her elevated position in Halifax society. But, like the tunnel, she, too, was hiding in plain sight.

On 29 January 1821, she wrote in her journal: “I love and only love the fairer sex and thus, beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any other love than theirs.” Set down in what she called her “crypthand”, the code she had developed from numbers and Greek letters, it is an extraordinarily intimate, candid confession. But it is also a sort of manifesto, a commitment to seek a lifestyle that had not yet been invented. At a time when female homosexuality was denied and abhorred, she resolved not to push aside her natural impulses but to pursue all her ambitions – to educate herself beyond the level of most men, to make her estate prosper, and to find someone she loved with whom all of it could be shared.

When a paperback colleaction of her journal was published in 2010, the author Emma Donoghue wrote that “the Lister diaries are the Dead Sea Scrolls of lesbian history. They change everything.” Others concurred: Professor Catherine Euler of the University of Arizona believes that they represent the earliest known non-fiction, first-person account of lesbian sexuality, and she is “unaware of anything similar anywhere else on the planet”. In 2011 the significance of the diaries was formally recognised by the UN and they were included on the Unesco Memory of the World register, next to Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn.

The 24 volumes offer a rich insight into lesbian life in the early 19th century, but that is not their only value. Anne chronicled family tensions, Halifax society and Yorkshire industry in extraordinary detail – Jill Liddington, a historian at the University of Leeds, has estimated that the diaries are between four and five million words in length. Lister also had ways of conveying information without words, as I discovered when her biographer Helena Whitbread showed me one of the original volumes in the archive at Halifax central library. As well as the lengthy passages in code, which Lister used for anything of an intimate nature (including, but not limited to, details of her sexual encounters), she drew symbols in the margin as a kind of shorthand for significant events.

Whitbread, who has been working on Anne Lister’s writings and life for over 30 years, has identified most of these: one means she received a letter that day, another that she sent a note, yet another that she’d had a particularly satisfying orgasm.

In less genteel circles in Halifax, Lister was known as “Gentleman Jack”. On her daily walks around the estate and in town, people often wondered aloud whether she was a man or a woman. Anxiety about her appearance is a recurring theme of her writing. In 1817, she writes that she has “entered upon my plan of always wearing black” to stop the disparaging comments.

The Listers were an old Halifax family and Anne always considered herself the social superior of the newer, mercantile class. Perhaps because of this – as well as her unorthodox personal life – she was always something of an outsider in the town. In one sense, though, she was fiercely conventional. After a passionate affair of many years with Marianna Lawton, a married woman, Lister “married” Ann Walker, the heiress of another Halifax estate. They lived together at Shibden Hall until Lister’s death while travelling in Russia in 1840. Indeed, it was Walker’s money that paid for many of the improvements to their home – the waterfall, the lake, the library tower and the tunnel.

There is one alteration, however, that Anne did not mastermind though it is a crucial part of her story. When I tell Kevin Kilroy, one of the guides at Shibden Hall, that I am interested in Anne Lister, he gives me a look. “There’s one thing you have to see, then.” We climb the stairs to a small room on the first floor, where a wall swings forward to expose empty wooden shelves. “There,” he says, gesturing proudly at the bare shelves. “That’s where they were.”

It might look like an empty cupboard, but this is a very important empty cupboard. Anne’s descendant John Lister rediscovered her diaries in the late 19th century and managed to transcribe some of the coded portions. A scandalised friend urged him to destroy the volumes, and fearing his own reputation would be destroyed by the hint of a hereditary taint of homosexuality, John agreed not to make the diaries public. But, as a keen antiquarian, he could not bring himself to destroy documents of such historical significance. Instead, he hid them away behind the wall in his library to await a time when Anne Lister’s life would be celebrated, rather than condemned.

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