The following article was in the UK newspaper INews on 12 June 2019
Rewriting The Hidden History of Lesbian Culture
INews 12 June 2019
The historian Michel Foucault famously argued that homosexuality was invented in the 19th century. Of course, same-sex attraction has been around as long as human beings have, but Foucault argued that until the 19th century, homosexuality was viewed as something someone did, not as being part of who somebody was – certainly not as an identity.
The diaries of Anne Lister, the Yorkshire landowner who is featured in the BBC’s Sunday night drama Gentleman Jack, turned this argument upside down.
She clearly understood her sexuality as being part of who she is, writing: “I love and only love the fairer sex and thus beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any love but theirs”. Little wonder, then, that her diaries have been called “the Dead Sea Scrolls of lesbian history”.
The revelation of Anne’s diaries forced a reassessment of lesbian history, as it became apparent that a rich lesbian subculture has long existed in Britain, and Anne was very much the tip of the iceberg.
There are two major challenges facing anyone who wants to research lesbian history. Firstly, this is a hidden history and first-hand accounts are incredibly rare; secondly, you need to locate the language being used to describe what we call “lesbianism” today. Until the late 19th century, “lesbian” meant something or someone from the Greek island of Lesbos. “Lesbian Wine” was once enormously popular, and 19th-century travellers frequently write about “quaffing bowls of Lesbian”.
When Anne Lister was busy loving “only the fairer sex”, the word “Tommy” was commonly used to describe a woman who was attracted to other women. When Ann Walker moved into Shibden Hall to be with Anne Lister, an anonymous announcement appeared in the The Leeds Mercury ridiculing the “marriage” of “Captain Tom Lister of Shibden Hall to Miss Ann Walker, late of Lidget”.
The “Ladies of Llangollen”, Eleanor Butler (1739-1829) and Sarah Ponsonby (1755-1831), were originally from Ireland but had abandoned their wealthy families to live together in the Welsh town. They lived as partners for 50 years, tending their farm and their gardens, and became something of a tourist attraction.
Anne Lister and her aunt travelled to Wales to meet them in 1822. Anne spent the day with Eleanor and Sarah and took great solace in seeing that women could make a life together. After meeting them, Anne wrote in her diary that “it excited in me, for a variety of circumstances, a sort of peculiar interest tinged with melancholy. I could have mused for hours, dreamt dreams of happiness, conjured up many a vision of… hope”.
Lady Louisa Strachan (17821822) and Sarah Greville, Countess of Warwick (1786-1851) were contemporaries of Anne Lister and were widely mocked in the British press as being lovers. Strachan and Warwick featured in the homoerotic poem, Don Leon, attributed to Lord Byron, who describes them as having “obtained some notoriety for a species of lasciviousness, probably common enough nowadays, but of frequent practice among the Roman ladies”.
In 1834, Anne Lister affirmed her commitment to Ann Walker with a church blessing. The union was not officiated by a priest, but the two women exchanged rings and vows and took the Communion together.
There can be little doubt that the life and diaries of Anne Lister have changed everything historians thought they knew about lesbian history. She was a singularly unique character who lived her life openly and without apology.
While it is easy to assume that Anne was a one-off, more and more research is showing this isn’t the case. A lesbian subculture and sense of identity has long been with us, hidden away and overlooked.