Anne Lister (1791-1840) was a well-off Yorkshire landowner, diarist, mountaineer and traveller. Throughout her life she kept diaries which chronicled the details of her daily life, including her lesbian relationships, her financial concerns, her industrial activities and her work improving Shibden Hall. Her diaries contain more than 4,000,000 words and about a sixth of them--those concerning the intimate details of her romantic and sexual relationships--were written in code. The code, derived from a combination of algebra and Ancient Greek, was deciphered in the 1930s. Lister is often called "the first modern lesbian" for her clear self-knowledge and openly lesbian lifestyle. Called "Fred" by her lover and "Gentleman Jack" by Halifax residents, she suffered from harassment for her sexuality, and recognised her similarity to the Ladies of Llangollen, whom she visited.
She was a rural gentlewoman who directed the renovation and landscaping of Shibden Hall, near Halifax in the West Riding of Yorkshire, which she had inherited from her uncle, James Lister.
Anne was the eldest daughter of Jeremy Lister (1753-1836) who as a young man in 1775 served with the British 10th Regiment of Foot in the Battles of Lexington and Concord in the American war of Independence. In August 1788 he married Rebecca Battle (1770-1817) of Welton in East Riding, Yorkshire. Their first child, John was born in 1789 but died the same year. Anne Lister was born in Welton 3 April 1791. In 1793 the family moved to an estate named Skefler House at Market Weighton. Skelfer was where the young Anne Lister would spend her earliest years. A second son, Samuel who would be a close friend to Anne, was born in 1793. The Listers had actually six children but only Anne and her younger sister Marian would survive to adulthood.
Between 1801 and 1805, Lister was educated at home by the Reverend George Skelding, the vicar of Market Weighton, and at the age of seven she was sent to a school run by a Mrs Hagues and a Mrs Chettle in Agnesgate, Ripon. On her visits to her aunt Anne and uncle James at Shibden Hall, the Misses Mellin gave her lessons. In 1805 Anne Lister was sent to the Manor House School in York where Anne would meet her first love and friend, Eliza Raine (1791-1869). While being educated at home Lister developed an interest in classical literature. In a surviving letter to her aunt from 3 February 1803, a young Lister explains:
My library is my greatest pleasure... The Grecian History had please me much.
Her wealth allowed her some measure of freedom to live as she pleased. She inherited the family estate, Shibden Hall, in 1826, and from it drew a reasonable income (some of it from tenants). During her life, she renovated Shibden Hall quite significantly to her own design. In 1838 she added a Gothic tower to the main house, to serve as her private library.
Lister is described as having a "masculine appearance"; one of her lovers, Marianna Lawton (née Belcombe), was initially ashamed to be seen in public with Anne, as her appearance was commented on. She dressed entirely in black and took part in many activities that were not perceived as the norm for gentlewomen, such as opening and owning a colliery. She was referred to as "Gentleman Jack" in some quarters. Lawton and Lister were lovers for several years, including a period during which Lawton was married and had her husband's permission.
Lister's subsequent affair with a wealthy heiress, Ann Walker, whom she met in 1832, was a story of local repute and her eventual marriage (without legal recognition) to Walker in 1834 was highly unusual.
In 1830 while travelling in France, Lister was the first woman to ascend Mont Perdu in the Pyrenees. In 1838, she came back to the Pyrenees with Walker and completed the first "official" ascent of the Vignemale (3,298 metres (10,820 ft)). In France she was known as Ann Lister or Lady Lister only for this accomplishment.
Anne Lister died aged 49 of a fever at Koutais (now Kutaisi, Georgia) while travelling with Ann Walker. Walker, to whom ownership of Shibden Hall passed, had Lister's body embalmed and brought back to the UK, where she is buried in the parish church in Halifax, West Yorkshire. Ann Walker died in 1854 at her childhood home, Cliff Hill in Lightcliffe.
Throughout her life, Lister had a strong faith in the Anglican Church. Lister's family had a vault at the Halifax parish church where her remains are. Her tombstone was recently discovered after being covered by a floor in 1879. The current family tomb is at St Anne's Church, Southowram, where John Lister is buried; he was the first to attempt the translation of Anne Lister's diaries.
During her life, Anne wrote a four-million-word diary. The diary exists in 26 volumes and covers the years 1806-1840. Around one-sixth of the diary is encrypted in a simple code of her own devising combining letters from Greek and algebra,and describes quite graphically her lesbian nature and affairs, as well as the tactics she used for seduction. The diaries also contain her thoughts on the weather, social events, national events and her business interests. The majority of her diary deals with her daily life, and not merely her lesbianism. The code used in her diaries were deciphered by the last inhabitant of Shibden Hall, John Lister (1847-1933) and a friend of his, Arthur Burrell. When the content of the secret passages was revealed, Burrell advised John Lister to burn all the diaries. Lister did not take this advice, but instead continued to hide Anne Lister's diaries behind a panel at Shibden Hall.
Author Helena Whitbread published some of the diaries in two volumes (one in 1988 and one in 1992). Their graphic nature meant at first they were believed by some to be a hoax, but documentary evidence has since established their authenticity. A biography by Jill Liddington appeared in 1994.
In 2010, BBC Two broadcast a production based on Lister's life, The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, starring Maxine Peake as Lister.Revealing Anne Lister, a documentary featuring Sue Perkins, was broadcast on 31 May 2010 on BBC Two.
In 2012, on their second album, The Fragile, chamber folk duo O'Hooley & Tidow (Belinda O'Hooley and Heidi Tidow) released a song about Anne Lister, which is called Gentleman Jack.
"I love and only love the fairer sex and thus beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any love but theirs." - Anne Lister, Journals, 29 October 1820
"Yet my manners are certainly peculiar, not all masculine but rather softly gentleman-like. I know how to please this fair maiden of mine." - Anne Lister, Journals, 1820