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The Building Blocks of Identity

Monday, March 11, 2019 - 07:00

I sometimes make joking reference to the "industry of Anne Lister studies" but it's hard to exaggerate the value of Lister's candid diaries for disrupting theory-based understandings of 18-19th century female homosexuality. We need to be careful not to assume that Lister's experience is universal, nor to treat it as unique. Many women, no doubt, wrote candid private diaries and correspondence that may have expressed their negotiation of homoerotic desires. Vast amounts of women's private writing have been deliberately destroyed by their families after death "to preserve their privacy and reputation." We know for a fact that Lister's diaries came close to being destroyed at various points in their transmission. And, as noted in this article, we know for a fact that Lister was deliberately dishonest in her public presentation with regard to same-sex desires.

But conversely, we see Lister considering and choosing amoung a variety of possible understandings of her own life and desires. And we shouldn't assume that all women would have had the same understandings and made the same choices in how they modeled their lives. If anything, the individual agency in constructing a self-identity that Clark examines here--and the absense of "official" public models for that identity--argues for the likelihood that women who desired women would have had a variety of understandings and identities.

I sometimes get nervous about the "Lister Studies Industry" and the way that modern pop culture has fixated on specific aspects of her performance and re-framed them in modern terms. (For example, I've encountered Lister fans interpreting her "masculine dress" as meaning she wore trousers, even though it's clear from the diaries themselves that this was not the case.) Surely one of the lessons of the treasure that is Lister's diaries is that we need to enjoy the complex contradictory variety that is historic lesbian experience, rather than trying to envision women in the past as being exactly like us.

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Clark, Anna. 1996. "Anne Lister's construction of lesbian identity", Journal of the History of Sexuality, 7(1), pp. 23-50.

Clark presents the early 19th century example of Anne Lister, not only as a fairly unambiguous example of lesbian identity--despite never using that term for herself--but as an illustration of the function of representation and agency in the history of sexuality. A contradiction of sorts to the social constructionist position that sexual identities are shaped or even determined by the surrounding societal discourse, rather than by the personal experience of desire.

The 19th century paradigm of “passionate friendship” between women encompassed emotional bonds and romantic expression but--as described by modern scholars--was considered to be unable of conceiving of sexual desire, much less acting on that desire. Under this paradigm, it is posited that early 19th century women could not develop a “lesbian identity” because no such concept existed for them to claim.

The social constructionist position is strongly associated with Michel Foucault, who held that until the late 19th century, a man who engaged in sex with men was regarded as sinful or criminal but was not considered to have a “homosexual” personality. Rather, that the ability to identify such a man (or to identify oneself) as “homosexual” was only possible after sexologists and psychiatrists invented the concept. And that the idea of homosexual identity was only then adopted by men and women whose desires aligned with those psychological models. Having an articulatable identity then made it possible for homosexual men and women to develop subcultures centered around their sexual orientation. This model made little or no allowance for individual agency in the development of identity.

The Foucaultian model has been eroded in recent decades, in part because more extensive historic research has contradicted the chronologies it relied on. Subcultures of homosexual men have been extensively documented in the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe, and sources such as Anne Lister’s diaries clearly show that women could be aware of the sexual nature of their desire for women and were acting on those desires. Extensive studies by Vicinus, Castle, Trumbach, Moore, and Donaghue regarding 18th century cultures point out that people in general--not just the women involved--could conceive of lesbian desire and recognize social roles associated with it.

An alternate theory from social construction is “sexual scripts”, in which sexual desires are learned rather than innate. This idea has problems in eras when homosexual desires or activity are strongly stigmatized. What is the attraction of adopting a negative script? It also suggests that homosexual desires could not be experienced in a vacuum--that they could only be acquired by encounters with those already familiar with the “script”. In contradiction to this are examples of isolated individuals who express a self-recognized same-sex desire without such a social context.

In the case of Anne Lister, although there is some evidence for lesbian subcultures among entertainers and sex workers in 18-19th century Paris, there is no similar evidence in England. So Lister could not have been “socialized” into a familiarity with lesbian desire, even by rumor. In England, Sapphic references seem to have been largely confined to sophisticated cosmopolitan intellectual circles. Circles that Lister encountered only after she had recognized and identified her own orientation.

Lister requires an understanding of sexual identity that allows for individual agency in constructing the self. Clark traces this act of construction based on three elements: her recognition of her own experiences and desires, her material circumstances, and the cultural representations she had available. For this, we have the abundant evidence of her detailed and candid diaries. One feature of Lister’s diaries was the use of a cipher code based on Greek  that enabled her to record explicit details of her relationships. She shared the code with some of her romantic correspondents.

Lister’s social and economic circumstances both enabled and restricted her expression of desire. Having recognized her interest in women in the context of a boarding school romance, she made an early decision not to marry. Family circumstances offered her the wealth necessary to avoid marriage. This was not entirely a matter of passive luck. Lister’s financial savvy was one motive for her being named the heir of her aunt and uncle (who were siblings, not spouses) rather than the property going to her father. But until that inheritance was realized, she didn’t have the financial standing to support a life partner in appropriate style. This threw obstacles in the way of several of her initial romances when her lovers succumbed to the pressure to marry for financial security. Lister did, eventually, find a life partner once she had obtained financial stability and control over her inheritance.

Lister’s records indicate that she was well aware of the variety of sexual morality that prevailed, not only in the upper levels of British society, but among her neighbors and peers. She also shows an awareness of the limits of tolerance and the need for discretion, while revealing an awareness of the transgressive nature of her own desires. She shows an awareness of the need to play multiple roles and to accept the contradictions between public and private identity.

That public identity, however, was constrained in the available roles for women at her time. Having declined that of wife and mother, she explored the possibility of the role of “passionate friendship,” including a visit to the famous “Ladies of Llangollen” who exemplified the role. But her commentary on that visit suggests that she viewed passionate friendship as not allowing for the sexual aspect that she enjoyed with her lovers (even when speculating that the Ladies themselves had a sexual relationship). Lister also explored a public role that adopted masculine motifs, particularly in the style of her clothing and accessories, as well as her vigorous physical behavior.

Another source of identity construction came from sparse references to sex between women that could be found in classical literature, such as Martial and Juvenal, as well as the more plentiful references to male homosexuality. Lister’s education included Latin and French, making this material linguistically accessible to her, though obtaining the publications required significant effort. She documents her interest in tracking down references to Sappho’s sexual interests, either through her work or allusions by other classical writers. The layers of misogyny and bowdlerism present in the material required substantial work to interpret, via a sort of double vision, consuming the negative treatment of lesbian desire and transforming it into a recognition of the existence of her own identity. Lister’s diary also traces how she tried to reconcile this identity with conventional religious (Anglican) attitudes toward sexuality. In this area, she developed a personalized morality that enabled her to use forms of religious experience (such as formalizing her relationships with women by taking the sacrament together) without considering her behavior to be uniquely in conflict with traditional moral principles.

Lister negotiated a similar ambivalence to Romantic literature, indulging in the power of authors such as Byron to offer intense emotional experiences, while recognizing that trying to follow their example in her own relationships “got her into scrapes.” But as with the classical authors, she simultaneously identified with writers like Rousseau while needing to sidestep his misogyny and negative attitude toward homosexuality. Lister used oblique references to these authors as coded overtures to women she was interested in, lending them books of poetry to observe their responses. Her diary follows in detail how she sounded out the nature of the relationship between the learned Miss Pickford and her good friend Miss Threlfall, while pretending to the former that her own relationships did not “go beyond...friendship.” A deceit that she directly acknowledges in a related entry.

In addition to these external sources that informed Lister’s construction of identity, the work of negotiating and articulating it often came in her interactions and discussions with other women. She developed covert and coded overtures that would enable her to determine the other women’s desires and attitudes before making any irrevocable confession. Included in this was her practice of discussing her interest in one woman with her other friends and lovers, while playing coy about her true desires.

[Note: It strikes me as highly relevant for interpreting the writings of Lister’s contemporaries that she records herself as publicly denying the possibility of sex between women, and denying the substance of her own desires as part of her negotiations with women she was considering as lovers. With Lister, we have the contradiction of her private commentary and the details of her sexual relationships. But perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to accept as literal truth similar public protestations from women who did not leave private records. Just because a woman of that era says she can't imagine what two women would do in bed together can't be taken as proof that she wasn't doing those "unimaginable" things herself.]

Lister synthesized her understanding of her own sexuality into a belief that it was “natural” and perhaps even biological. Not in the sense of considering herself to have an underlying masculine physiology, but in the sense of concluding that male and female sexual biology was far more similar than was generally believed, and therefore there was no biological argument for a greater “naturalness” of sexual response to one sex over another. In this context, she had a fascination for androgyny.

Lister’s own pursuit of androgyny and performative masculinity encompassed both projecting “masculine” roles on her female lovers (calling her first lover “husband”) and later adopting masculine style jackets (in part, as an economic gesture to opt out of the pursuit of feminine fashionability) and viewing her active pursuit of potential partners as reflecting a masculine social role. She notes that she models herself on being “gentlemanly” rather than “masculine”, but also sometimes expresses the experience of sexual desire as being masculine in nature. She envisions the desire for women as partaking of some sort of inherent masculinity, without expressing any desire to be a man. Masculinity represented her desire for women and for the male privilege that would enable her to live the life she envisioned with one particular woman. This imagined male privilege does not seem to have been expressed in sexual performance. Although Lister preferred to take an active role in sex there are no indications that she used a dildo or in other ways enacted a masculine role in bed.

It’s clear from the various references to dress that Lister did not cross-dress completely. She wore specific male-coded garments, but always in combination with skirts. There are a couple of references in the diaries to fantasizing about passing as a man, but she rejects it as an option, not only because it would have meant leaving behind her comfortable position as a respectable heiress, but because the rules of homosociality would then bar her from the ordinary company of women, which she greatly enjoys. “It would not have done at all. I...should have been shut out from ladies’ society.”

During Lister’s lifetime, the blurring of gender boundaries created an anxiety expressed in caricatures of dandies in corsets and “female sailor boys”. But there was not a strong social stereotype linking overt female cross-dressing with lesbian desire. The multitude of stories of passing women and “female husbands” most often presented them as heterosexual, using flirtation or “fraudulent” marriage only as a part of the disguise and not an expression of sexuality or gender identity. Only on the stage were there allusions to the potential for overtly cross-dressing actresses to attract the desire of female spectators, though this was always accompanied by the opinion that this desire could not be fulfilled due to the absence of a penis between the couple.

In this context, Lister’s adoption of specific masculine signifiers, both in dress and behavior (her style of walking was noted as “masculine”) was viewed as threatening to convention and provoked hostile reactions from men, including the use of the probably derogatory nickname “Gentleman Jack”. But her economic position gave her some share in masculine privilege and her political activity seems to have wavered between feminist ideals and a more reflexive conservatism of the landowning gentry.

When Lister finally achieved her domestic ideal of an equal intellectual and economic partnership with a neighboring heiress, another Anne (Walker), it isn’t clear exactly what they both understood as the nature of their relationship. It had a sexual component, though Walker seems to have been uneasy about that aspect. It had a romantic component, though Lister at one point suggests that she was playing a romantic part to secure Walker’s affection rather than entirely expressing her true feelings. They lived and traveled together for a number of years, cut short by Lister’s death of a fever while traveling in the Caucasus.

In summary, Lister’s testimony in her diaries makes it clear that she didn’t adopt an existing sapphic role, despite there being at least scattered references to such a concept in contemporary society. Rather it was something she constructed from bits and pieces--from literature and her own experience--and negotiated covertly, being constantly aware of the need for discretion. She did not inherit the libertine understanding and philosophy of the 18th century, but looked for her identity in classical and Romantic literature. Her identity was, to some extent, compartmentalized between the private and public spheres, and she regularly recorded the duplicity she used to maintain the distinction. She was familiar with the concept of passionate friendship but didn’t consider the role to fit her own desires. She used masculine performance to express her sexual desires and longing for male social power, but rejected the idea of having an underlying male gender identity. She can’t be considered to have participated in a lesbian subculture, but did establish a personal network of women with same-sex desires that was surprisingly extensive. One of the bars to turning this network into a subculture was Lister’s chronic use of deception and mendacity to maintain the upper hand in her relationships and dodge the public scrutiny that she feared would put them in jeopardy. In part, this was a facet of Lister’s unique personality, but in part it was a reflection of the social realities of her time.

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