The Diaries of Miss Anne Lister

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Anne Lister (1791-1840) was a wealthy heiress who inherited Shibden Hall in West Yorkshire from her uncle in 1826. Shibden Hall had been in the family since 1420.

Throughout her life, she kept diaries in which she chronicled the details of her everyday life, including her financial concerns, her industrial activities, her work improving Shibden Hall, and her romantic and sexual relationships with other women.  The details of her intimate relationships were written in code, based on algebra and ancient Greek.

Her success with both single and married women make it clear she was a woman of great charm. She enjoyed lovers in London and Paris, and was busy in Yorkshire, too.

She started her diaries in 1806 at the age of 15 following a relationship with a boarding school friend. She continued writing until her death at age 49.

Her usual method was to jot down memos on a slate and then write up her notes in her journal later that day or the following day.  “I owe a good deal to this journal,” she wrote on Friday 22 June 1821.  “By unburdening my mind on paper I feel, as it were, in some degree to get rid of it; it seems made over to a friend that hears it patiently, keeps it faithfully, and by never forgetting anything, is always ready to compare the past & present and thus to cheer and edify the future.” 

In 1832 she began an affair with Ann Walker (1803-1854), another rich heiress who became her traveling companion and lived with her at Shibden Hall.  They exchanged rings at the altar of a church.

Anne’s last entry was 11 August 1840 when she was in the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia.  She died of a fever six weeks later on 22 September.  Ann Walker brought her body back to Yorkshire, together with some of her diaries, including the one she was writing in Georgia.

Ann Walker had an unhappy end.  She was removed from Shibden Hall and placed in an insane asylum. She eventually returned to her childhood home and died on 4 March 1854.  She was 51. 

The diaries were stored behind some panels at Shibden, and remained there for almost 100 years, when John Lister, a relative and antiquarian, found them and began to crack the code.  Friends urged him to destroy the diaries, but he refused.

In the 1980s, Helena Whitebread, a historian, rediscovered the diaries and put them into print.  I Know my own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister, was published in 1988.  A follow up collection of extracts, No Priest but Love: The Journals of Anne Lister, was published in 1993.

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