The Secret Diaries Of Miss Ann Lister -edited by Helena Whitebread


„I  love, & only love, the fairer sex & thus  beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any other love than theirs.”


These remarkable diaries are a piece of lost lesbian history. Anne Lister defied the role of womanhood seen in the novels of Jane Austen: she was bold, fiercely independent, a landowner, industrialist, traveler – and lesbian

Anne Lister was an upper-class Englishwoman from Halifax, West Yorkshire. She lived from 1791-1840, and would not be particularly notable except that she left behind her diaries, and along with describing her daily activities, these journals also describe her romantic relationships with women. Not “vaguely romantic”, but clearly passionate and sexually-involved affairs that she pursued exclusively with women, throughout her life.

Remember Anne lived in an era when women, even upper-class, were to be married and won’t possess any wealth, all the wealth they would inherit from their families will be given to her husband as dowry.


Anne’s coded journals might have gone unexplored had not Helena Whitbread invested six years of her time carefully exploring and decoding them. Helena’s book, I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister 1791-1840, offers the diaries as fascinating story of the “everyday” life led by an early 19th century lesbian. Engrossing reading, to say the least.

How could an upper class Englishwoman, in the first half of the nineteenth century, fulfill her emotional and sexual needs when her sexual orientation was toward other women? How did an aristocratic lesbian manage to balance sexual fulfillment with social acceptability?

„This meeting with Miss Browne seems to have stimulated & roused me altogether. I cannot live happily without female company, without someone to interest me…”


„I wonder what she thinks of me? My attention to her is certainly sufficiently marked to attract her notice. Is she flattered? I think she is. I have thought of her all the way home, of writing to her anonymously and (as she said, when I asked her if she liked Lord Byron’s poetry. `Yes, perhaps too well`) of sending her a Cornelian heart with a copy of his lines  on the subject. I could soon be in love with the girl.”

Helena Whitbread, the editor of these diaries, here allows us an inside look at the long-running love affair between Anne Lister and Marianna Lawton, an affair complicated by Anne’s infatuation with Maria Barlow. Anne travels to Paris where she discovers a new love interest that conflicts with her developing social aspirations. For the first time, she begins to question the nature of her identity and the various roles female lovers may play in the life of a gentrywoman.

„Letter from M-…Her letter breathes little of affection & indeed I do not estimate her feelings towards me very highly. She has not, she never had, the heart that Isabella has. She has her carriage & the luxuries of life & thinks proportionately less of me. M-’s conduct to me has certainly been as strange a mixture of weakness, selfishness & worldly-mindedness. Consider her conduct on our first aquaitance; before her marriage; about her marriage; & ever since. I do not accuse her of premeditated deceit because perhaps she deceives herself as much as anyone else.”


About Anne Lister, Helena says, “She became the first woman to be elected to the committee of the Halifax brance of the Literary and Philosophical Society because of her academic contributions to that soceity. She took an active interest in schools in the area and generally encouraged the spread of education. She managed her estates, dealt with the business of farming, and developed coal-mining on her land. Much of her working life was spent out of doors supervising workmen and, at times, tackling some of the physical tasks herself.”

„Anne Belcombe’s conscience, however, was bothering her. She was concerned about the question of whether or not sex between members of the same sex was counted as sinful.

Ann Lister  mentioned the strength of the natural feeling, as I had always had from infancy. That it had been known to me, as it were, by inclination. That I had never varied & no effort on my part had been able to counteract it. That the girls liked me & had always liked me.

Anne Belcombe accepted Anne’s rationalizing of the fears she had expressed although secretly Ann Lister felt that the sin, on her part, was more in deceiving Mariana by having sex with another woman, a thing which she had promised faithfully not to do.”

Anne died unexpectedly at 49, from a fever contracted while traveling in Russia.


 „M-very  affectionately, more so than I remember to have done for long…wrote the following crypt, `I can live upon hope, forget that we grew older, & love you as warmer as ever. ”



Watch the BBC series entirely here :



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.