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A compendium of queer people in the 19th and 20th centuries // Drawn and researched by Michele Rosenthal

Anne  Lister

Anne Lister 1791to –1840

English landowner, industrialist, and mountaineer, known for her extensive coded diaries. She was born to a wealthy family in Yorkshire, and discovered her sexuality when she was sent to a boarding school at age 13. There she began her first relationship, with her roommate Eliza Raine. She also began writing what would eventually become a 26 volume diary, totaling over four million words. Lister left Raine with a broken heart two years later, the first of several that she left in her wake, and began dating other women. At 23 she met the love of her life, Mariana Belcombe. They had a passionate affair that was put on hold when Belcombe suddenly married for money. Lister was devastated, but they eventually rekindled the affair despite the marriage, making plans that never came to pass of living together after the husband’s death. Lister eventually grew tired of waiting. In 1832, she began courting her neighbor Ann Walker, less for love and more for Walker’s wealth as an heiress. The two of them were married through a church blessing two years later, and Walker came to live in Lister’s home, which Lister herself inherited shortly after. Their combined wealth protected them in the community, although there was plenty of local gossip. Lister was known for her masculine appearance and her habit of wearing all black, and was sometimes referred to as “Gentleman Jack.” She was also known as a local businesswoman. Funded by Walker’s wealth, Lister became involved in coal mining, naming her first mine after her wife, and beating out the local competition. She traveled extensively, and had a passion for the Pyrenees, becoming the first woman to ascend Mount Perdu, and the first person of any gender to scale Mount Vignemale. She and Walker were actually traveling together in Russia when Lister suddenly contracted a fever and died. She left behind her lengthy diaries, in which she described her day to day life, current events, and the explicit details of her lesbian exploits, ranging from seduction techniques to declarations of love to how many orgasms she had enjoyed that morning. The more salacious details were written in an invented code, made up of greek letters and algebraic symbols. The code was first deciphered in the 1890s by her relative John Lister, who was advised by a friend to destroy the diaries immediately. Instead he kept them hidden, and they weren’t decoded for the public until nearly a hundred years later, in 1988. The idea of a woman writing frankly about a homosexual identity and community in the Regency era was so shocking that some accused it of being a hoax. But she is now considered one of the first modern lesbians, changing the way we think about the start of modern gay history.

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