Born in Yorkshire in 1791, Anne Lister was a landowner famed for keeping detailed diaries that totalled over four million words, a sixth of which was written in a code she devised to conceal her sexuality and intimate encounters. Discovered and deciphered by a descendant in the 1890s, they covered everything from her daily life to her emotional and sexual liaisons with women, the latter of which has led to her being known as the “first modern lesbian.” On the evening of the following entry in 1824, Lister had been playing a parlour game that involved the taking of pulses, a seemingly innocent activity that led to flirtatious exchanges with Mlle de Sans, a new acquaintance for whom she also wrote a short poem.
The Diary Entry
Wednesday 13 Oct.
Went down to dinner at 5–40. M. de Boyve not dining with us (he has been unwell this fortnight or more), we were only 5 & the smallness of the party looked dull. But in the evening we were rather dull because we had nothing to do – not much, I think, on account of the Macks. Felt pulses, mistaking Mlle de Sans’ several times. Said I could not feel hers correctly. Said she reminded me of the following, which I gave her in pencil; ‘When in my hand thy pulse is prest, I feel it alter mine, & draw another from my breast, in unison with thine.’ ‘Indeed,’ said she, ‘if you were a man I know not what would be the end of all this. I think Mme de Boyve would be right. I should be married before the year’s end.’ She certainly likes me. Mrs Barlow, too, has made up to me, particularly today. Has said several times she was jealous. Sat with hold of my hand tonight & looked as if she could like me. Half said as much several times. This morning, in shewing the Macks my greatcoat & putting it on, & my hat Mrs Barlow joked & called me her beau. In fact, they all like me. At dinner, gave Mlle de Sans a motto signifying Heaven made her to charm & me to love her. On leaving her, before dinner, she somehow shook hands, then saluted me in the French manner [kissing her on each cheek], & then in the English manner [kissing her on one cheek or on the lips]. I immediately kissed her again, with a little more pressure of the lips, saying ‘That is Yorkshire.’ She had before remarked on my inquisitive, curious look. I said it was like the look of other people, the Macks, etc. ‘No,’ said she, ‘it is only like yourself, but I don’t dislike it.’ She slightly coloured tonight when I gave her the four lines about her pulse. She certainly likes me, & Mrs Barlow flirts with me.
There are two volumes of Anne Lister’s diaries, fully decoded and edited by Helena Whitbread and published by Virago. Details can be found at the Anne Lister website. These diaries are completely fascinating, as is the story that surrounds them. Highly recommended.
- Anne Lister’s story inspired a television series called Gentleman Jack (her nickname) which has so far spanned two seasons (HBO / BBC iPlayer)
- The Life and Loves of Anne Lister (BBC)
- The Anne Lister website
- Anne Lister at Wikipedia
Diary excerpted from The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister – Vol.2 by Anne Lister. © Helena Whitbread 1992. Reproduced with permission of the Licensor through PLSclear.