When Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813 it is certain that Anne Lister’s reading of that opening sentence would have included herself – and not as the wife. Anne Lister’s diaries run to more than four million words – three time the length of Samuel Pepys’s – and about one sixth is written in a clever combination of Greek letters and numbers, invented by Anne from her teenage years onwards. Anne Lister did not really think of herself as acting like a man – simply, she wanted to be independent, free-thinking, and crucially, to share her life with another woman. She died early, too, on a tour of Russia, in 1840, leaving her wife to bring home her embalmed remains.
The diaries went into the attic, and remained there until the early 20th century, when John Lister, a relative ad antiquarian, found them and began to crack the code.
Oranges won the Whitbread Prize, but I discovered how tough it is to try to live honestly and honourably as a gay woman in Britain.
I read Anne Lister’s diaries while I was working on the BBC’s TV adaptation of Oranges – 20 years old this year, and the first woman-to-woman prime-time screen kiss, never mind Brookside. If you require additional assistance, information or images, please contact Three Dollar Bill Cinema at 206-323-4274. Website of the Telegraph Media Group with breaking news, sport, business, latest UK and world news. Born in 1791 to a military family, she later inherited Shibden Hall, two miles outside Halifax, and knew that she needed a wife. Erotic intensity between women was not taken seriously in the 18th and early 19th centuries – sometimes it was encouraged as a prelude for marriage, and in any case women often shared a bed, so much so that a husband would not think it odd to vacate the marital bed when a special friend visited. But such a conscious under­standing of herself, and her premed­itated frank desires towards other women would – and did – get her into trouble.


Her first lover was a schoolgirl, and her success with both single and married women makes it clear that she was a woman of great charm.
Her great love affair with a doctor’s daughter, Mariana Belcombe, had ended when Mariana suddenly married a wealthy man. When she took on local coal-mining interests, and opened her own pit in direct competition with the macho-men of Halifax, effigies of herself and her wife Ann Walker were burnt in the town.
It took six months, by ship and by coach, for Ann Walker to get the body of her beloved back to Yorkshire.
Friends urged him to destroy the diaries, but he refused, and stuffed them deep into the Shibden archive. It is ironic that Anne Lister should re-surface in the year that the Thatcher government passed the infamous Section 28, banning public bodies from “promoting” homosexuality, or, in that hideous phrase, “pretended family relationships”.
It’s the story of a girl growing up across the Pennines from Anne Lister’s Halifax, in a Lancashire town, and although Anne had money and I did not, and she had privilege and I did not, the struggle to live openly and according to your own heart is much the same stuff. I felt connection, not only with Anne Lister, but with the other women who had finally been able to decode ad publish such an important life story – important for any woman wanting to make her own choices in the world, regardless of what is socially acceptable. Content from the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph newspapers and video from Telegraph TV. She began courting a wealthy single woman called Ann Walker, gave her a wedding ring, and had their union blessed in a church. Touching and kissing were allowed to be part of women’s shared vocabulary – what was not allowed was any sense of a woman taking a man’s role. Money and class had allowed her to escape too much trouble up till then, but the moment Anne Lister stopped living like a landed, if eccentric, gentlewoman, and started living like a man – competing openly for wealth – her sexuality was brutally used against her.


They were finally decoded and published, as I Know My Own Heart, by Helena Whitbread in 1988.
Whoever came up with that had obviously never read Dickens, where all the real families – those that offer love and attachment and support – are pretend ones in the eyes of convention and the law. Anne Lister wasn’t neces­sarily likeable – and that in itself is a lesson for women, who still now, with all our advances and self-definition, like to be liked, especially by men. They had already sworn their love for each other on the Bible in a little thatched summer house on the Shibden estate.
Yet the two women continued to be lovers for around five years, until Mariana broke off the relationship after a tumultuous weekend in Scarborough.
At a time when women had to marry, or be looked after by a male relative, and when all their property on marriage passed to their husband, Anne Lister not only dodged the traps of being female, she set up a liaison with another woman that enhanced her own wealth and left both of them free to live as they wishes. The other famous lesbians of the period – the Ladies of Llangollen, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby – had eloped together from Ireland, but lived in a haze of female virtue and deep friendship. Anne Lister was a far more flamboyant, obviously sexual creature, supporting the idea of votes for women and taking on men at their own game.



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