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
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 volume covers 1817 to 1824: Anne Lister lived from 1791 to 1840 at Halifax in West Yorkshire, England. Born one of six children, to an upper class family, the deaths of her four brothers enabled her to inherit Shibden Hall where she then lived with her Uncle James and Aunt Anne (unmarried siblings) from age 24 on, leaving her parental home. Finances were difficult at first but she seems to have had a talent far careful management and eventually had sufficient funds to travel.
Dissatisfied with the limitations of Halifax society, she engaged in a program of self-education, studying classical and modern languages, science, history, literature, and philosophy. Her more eccentric habits of dress and behavior earned her the nickname of "Gentleman Jack" among her neighbors and, at times, attracted rude and sometimes threatening attention from strange men.
Her eccentricity went deeper than appearance. As she wrote in her journal in 1821 at age 30, on the occasion of burning the correspondence of a rejected male suitor, "I love and only love the fairer sex and thus, beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any other love than theirs." The uniqueness of her record lies not necessarily in the nature of her sentiments or her embracing of her desire for women, but in her meticulous record of those sentiments and actions--embedded in a larger context of every day life--and the assortment of design and chance that allowed that record to be preserved for us, not least by the obscuring code she used that may have prevented others from feeling the need to destroy the diaries.
And this is not the record of an isolated figure suffering from unrequited passions. A number of women returned her love in various forms, though not all had the resolution or ability to reject marriage and male courtship as she did. The two most significant in the period covered by the extracts in this volume were Marianne, with whom Anne maintained a mutually passionate love affair both before and after Marianne's marriage, and Isabella (Tib) who seems to have been as exclusively devoted to women as Anne was and who at one point hoped to become Anne's permanent partner.
Whitbread tackled the immense task of unraveling the cipher that Lister used for the more sensitive passages in her journals, as well as the more ordinary labor of transcribing cramped handwriting and expanding the frequent abbreviations. In this summary, I've confined myself to the entries touching on her emotional and sexual life, but the diaries are also fascinating for the portrait of a woman dedicated to an intellectual life in the absence of formal or social support for that goal. Even such covert topics as her romantic relationships are built up out of an extensive scattering of everyday interactions.
At the time of the earliest journal entries, Marianne has already married and her husband has intercepted their correspondence, which included speculations on Anne and Marianne forming a household together after the (much older) husband's death. At this point Anne begins using her cipher in the correspondence for key passages, as well as in her journals, But relations with Marianne were becoming strained from the separation and Anne's thoughts turned once more to an earlier lover, Tib (Isabrlla Norcliffe), who was part of the York social circles of her youth.
Tib, however, is traveling in Italy. And so Anne befriends a Miss Browne, a woman from a socially inferior family--a preference which caused jealousies among the Halifax families to whose company Anne was indifferent. But this new friendship was interrupted by Miss Browne's removal to Harrowgate for half a year.
During a visit to York on the occasion of her mother's death, Anne took the opportunity to see Marianne and her family and try to repair some social ties there by pretending to less affection for Marianne than she truly felt. This reaching out led to a very brief return visit from Marianne at the end of the month.
The first part of the year was very quiet, but in April Miss Browne returned and Anne becomes quite attentive to her, despite considering her family vulgar. This resulted in comment as the friendship was between the two women alone and not between their families. Anne finds many excuses to encounter her casually but there are no formal visits. Halifax society begins teasing Anne about the peculiar relationship. Anne also records encounters with more lower class persons who mock her for her masculine appearance and habits. She has given Miss Browne the nickname Kallista in her diaries (though she uses it rarely).
When Anne writes of Marianne now, she is colder and doubts they will ever be together. Anne turns her thoughts to whether she can shape Miss Browne into a suitable companion. In general, Miss Browne seems both flattered and flustered by Anne's attention. Anne seems to believe Miss Browne understands the nature of her affections but this is not at all clear to an outside observer.
The Norcliffes, including Anne's friend Tib, have returned from their travels and Anne plans to spend from September to the end of the year with them in York. During her journey there, Anne has a couple more encounters with strangers acting as if they take her for a man. (Note that there is no indication that she is wearing men's clothing, though perhaps severe and masculine styles.)
There is nothing regarding any romantic renewal with Tib and in November Anne stays with a different friend in York when the Norcliffes travel south for the winter. The friend seems to be a previous interest of Anne's and they talk about Anne's wish for a companion. The friend seems somewhat regretful that Anne had not approached her about it before her (the friend's) marriage.
In late November Anne moves again and spends much time with the Belcombes (Marianne's family). There is an interesting conversation with Lou (Marianne's sister) on the topic of female companions and Lou seems to be hinting of her own interest. In December, back to Halifax where Anne again begins mooning over Miss Browne.
It turns out that Miss Browne seems to be in love with a man that she's known for several years and is unhappy that her parents are set against him. It is becoming clear (even to the oblivious Anne) that Miss Browne has never seen Anne's interest as romantic. And after much internal conflict recorded in February and March, Anne's interest in her fades significantly.
Having saved up an adequate sum, Anne determines to travel in France as a distraction, perhaps with Tib or with her aunt. Letters arrive from Marianne but mostly stir Anne to think on how Marianne "will be worn out in service to another" by the time they would have any hope of sharing their lives, In May, Anne and her aunt indeed spent a month in Paris. In June, Tib comes to visit and though Tib was eagerly affectionate, various discussions made it clear that--to Anne--there was no future for them as a couple (in part because Tib was saddled with responsibility for an unmarried sister). With the growing disinterest in Miss Browne and the futility of making plans with Marianne, Anne's romantic prospects are looking low. Tib has something of an annoying habit of teasing: daring Anne to try kissing Miss Browne, and telling their friends about Anne's coded journals.
In August, despite her waning interest, Anne finally brings Miss Browne to Shibden Hall for a formal visit, during which Tib takes the opportunity of the three of them being alone in the garden to kiss Anne in front of Miss Browne and so give Anne an excuse to kiss Miss Browne in turn, which she does rather "moistly". Miss Browne is clearly discomfited by this. Throughout September, Anne comments regularly on how she will be relieved when Tib leaves and she can return to her routines, but also will be sad "left alone with none to love or speak to".
In late October, Marianne proposes a meeting while she is in transit with her mother and sister to Manchester and her husband will not be there. This puts Anne into a depression thinking that she'll grow old without finding someone to share her life, But she decides to go to Manchester after all, which occurs in mid November. They spend the night together and discuss their sex life and how it relates to Marianne's marriage. Anne feels that any commitment she had made was cancelled by Marianne's marriage. As if to hurt her, Anne brings up Tib's continuing interest, noting, "Tib would really willingly marry me in disguise at the altar". In the end of the year Anne is being bothered by a persistent (male) suitor--a stranger who has been writing her letters that she ignores. There is also an incident where someone put an advertisement in the paper in her name looking for a husband, evidently as a practical joke (or as harassment).
At the beginning of the year, Anne is once more being annoyed by strangers accosting her on the road and by impertinent letters. After yet another comment about an advertisement taken out in her name seeking a “sweetheart”, she consults a lawyer about the letters, but he advises her to take no notice of them.
In February she goes off to spend time in York with the Belcombes and Marianne. In March they are joined by Isabella (Tib) Norcliffe and it’s clear having all three women in one place is a bit uncomfortable.
Marianne returns to Halifax with Anne. At one point she runs across one of Anne’s diaries from just around the time of her marriage and becomes upset to discover how badly it had affected Anne. They discuss some of the issues around Anne’s too-attentive public behavior to other women. There is an entry that concludes, “Went upstairs at 11. Sat up lovemaking, she conjuring me to be faithful, to consider myself as married, & always to act to other women as if I was M--'s husband.” Marianne seems to be very worried about Anne’s faithfulness and there are several emotional scenes where Marianne demands some sort of pledge. Anne dances around the question and convinces herself that she has not made any firm promise. When Marianne writes to her in August, mentioning her promise, Anne cautions her to be more discreet and asks Marianne to send her letters back.
At the end of September, Anne goes to York to visit the Norcliffes for a while. Tib takes exception to the attention Anne is paying to Miss Vallance, another female houseguest, and Anne in turn takes Tib to task for the amount of wine she drinks, which Tib denies. Anne evidently has also had a sexual relationship with Tib’s sister Anne, and notes in early December, “I believe I could have her again in spite of all she says ... [she] owns she loves me & perhaps she has feelings as well as I. She let me kiss her breasts” and they tease each other about whether they want to go further. At least two other near-sexual encounters with her are recorded in late December.
While staying with the Belcombes in York, Anne gives Miss Vallance a copy of her secret cypher while at the same time saying she is “getting lukewarm about her.” Anne returns to Halifax in mid-January. In February she writes a very loving letter to Marianne and refers to her as “my wife”. In May she records a sexual fantasy about a local woman Caroline Greenwood, whom she admires, and there are regular notes through the summer about her attraction to various women, though none of these seem to go beyond admiration. Yet in June, in the context of writing to Marianne, she once again notes that she considers herself pledged to her.
In July, visiting Marianne at the home of her brother in Newcastle, two notable things are recorded. After making love to Marianne, they exchange “an irrevocable promise for ever” and symbolize it with a ring that Anne had previously given Marianne. But in the same entry, Anne notes the suspicion that Marianne has passed on to her a venereal disease that she was given by her husband. And the symptoms and treatment of this take up a fair amount of attention over the next month (and it continues to be a problem for quite some time).
In September, Anne goes again to York and pays a great deal of time and attention to acquiring a carriage and horse. While there, she has a flirtatious encounter with Anne Belcombe though she notes to herself that she is “much altered” in attitude since making her pledge to Marianne. But when Tib Norcliffe comes to visit her there in York, it’s clear they continue their sexual relationship, both from Anne’s coded use of “kiss” (for orgasm) and from her concern afterwards that she might have passed the venereal infection on to Tib.
She is still in York in December when Marianne comes to visit her there (intending to return to Halifax with Anne at the end of the year). While still in York, there is again friction when Anne, Marianne, and Tib are thrown together. Anne is learning to drive her new carriage with only minor mishaps.
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.
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.
It is clear from Marianne's letters and descriptions of her activities that she has been making new friends, taking up new hobbies, and generally becoming less emotionally dependent on Anne. In the early part of the year, Anne is much concerned with managing the property she shares with her aunt and uncle, taking over more of the control. Tib comes to visit in mid January and is in poor health. In a month Anne is wishing the visit were over already and is tired of Tib's drinking and snuff-taking. There is a note in March that, during a conversation on the topic of marriage with her friend Mrs. Priestley, Anne declared that she would not marry for she had made her choice already these 15 years and it was a lady. This is an unexpected openness and she thinks Mrs Priestley was taken by surprise but they talk of it more later. As the time For Tib to leave draws near, they quarrel more often.
Anne puts some effort into mending social ties with her Halifax neighbors who complain that she snubs them, especially when encountered elsewhere such as York. But Anne is also thinking more and more of traveling. There are no mentions of the sorts of little flirtations we've seen before, though in one entry in June she is reviewing her journals and comments on the accounts of her involvement to varying degrees with Anne Belcombe, Miss Vallance, and Miss Browne.
There is a visit in July from Marianne and they are still passionate but disengaged. In late July, Anne and her aunt go on a tour of the lake district and the entries are all about travel and sights and food. And then after a brief return to Halifax in August, Anne travels to Paris in company with her maid and stays there for the rest of the year. This trip marks a major change in her life and is the end of this volume.