Monday, May 31, 2010

A violent longing

Tonight (Monday 31 May), the UK’s BBC 2 television channel is broadcasting a ‘bold and passionate drama’ about Anne Lister. She was a landowner in the early 1800s, and a diarist; but what makes her story special is that she was also a lesbian who confided intimate details of her sexuality - albeit in code - to her diaries.

Lister was born in Halifax, West Yorkshire, in 1791, into a wealthy family. She seems to have discovered her homosexuality while a teenager at boarding school. Between 1809 and 1814, she was in a relationship with the wealthy heiress Isabella Norcliffe, but then she fell in love with Mariana Belcombe and continued an affair despite Mariana’s marriage to Charles Lawton. By this time, Lister’s mother had died, and Lister herself had inherited the family wealth. In 1824, she went to Paris to master French and to find a cure for venereal infection.

Thereafter, Lister took an active interest in developing schools in the Halifax area, managed her estates, and even opened coal mines on her land. In 1832, she began an affair with Ann Walker, another rich heiress, who became her companion, and with whom she travelled widely. Lister died in July 1840 in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains, Georgia, and Walker spent seven months bringing her body back to England to be buried in the local churchyard. Further information is available from Calderdale Council, Wikipedia, or HerStoria magazine on the Leeds Metropolitan University website.

In the 1980s, Helena Whitbread, a historian, discovered (or rediscovered) the store of diaries (now held by Calderdale Archives part of the West Yorkshire Archives) written by Lister between 1791 and 1840, and, in particular, deciphered the substantial parts written in code. The coded parts reveal much about Lister’s active lesbian sex life, thus providing a unique record from this historical period. A first edition of the diaries - I Know my own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister - was published by Virago in 1988, and by New York University Press in 1992. A follow-up collection of extracts - No Priest but Love: The Journals of of Anne Lister - was published in 1993, also by New York University Press.

Tonight, 31 May 2010, BBC 2 is screening a much-anticipated drama - The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister - starring Maxine Peake. The BBC says it is a ‘bold and passionate drama’ about Lister, who, despite needing to keep her orientation secret from society at large, in private defied the conventions of her times by living with her female lover. It also claims she has been called ‘Britain’s first modern lesbian’. To accompany the drama, the BBC is also screening tonight a documentary, presented by Sue Perkins, called Revealing Anne Lister.

Substantial extracts from Lister’s diary can be found online at the Isle of Lesbos website, and at From History to Her Story. Here are two. The first and longer one comes from 1822 (thanks to the Isle of Lesbos website) when Lister had travelled to Wales to visit the so-called Ladies of Llangollen, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, who lived together and may also have been lesbians. Eleanor Butler was also a diarist (see The Diary Junction), but unlike Lister, left no clear evidence of having lived the life of a ‘modern lesbian’.

13 July 1822
‘Two kisses last night, one almost immediately after the other, before we went to sleep . . . Felt better, but was so shockingly low last night I cried bitterly but smothered it so that M- scarcely knew of it. At any rate, she took no notice, wisely enough . . . M- told me of the gentlemanliness & agreeableness of Mr Powis who, it seems, might interest M more than duly had her heart no object but C-, with whom she has had no connection these four months. Not down to breakfast till 11 . . . then, perhaps luckily for us, all in a bustle & M-off at 21. We were off in 1/2 hour.

Got here, the King’s Head, New Hotel, Llangollen, patronised by Lady Eleanor Butler & Miss Ponsonby, in 44 hours . . . Beautiful drive from Chester to Wrexham. It was market day & the town seemed very busy. Beautiful drive, also, from Wrexham here but I was perhaps disappointed with the first couple of miles of the vale of Llangollen The hills naked of wood & the white limestone quarries on our left certainly not picturesque. About 3 miles from Llangollen, when Castle Dinas Bran came in sight, we were satisfiede of the beauties of the valley but the sun was setting on the castle & so dazzled our eyes we could scarce look that way. The inn, kept by Elizabeth Davies, is close to the bridge & washed by the river Dee. We are much taken with our hostess & with the place. Have had an excellent roast leg of mutton, & trout, & very fine port wine, with every possible attention . . . We sat down to dinner at 8-1/2, having previously strolled thro’ the town to Lady Eleanor Butler’s & Miss Ponsonby’s place. There is a public road close to the house, thro’ the grounds, & along this we passed & repassed standing to look at the house, cottage, which is really very pretty. A great many of the people touched their hats to us on passing & we are much struck with their universal civility. A little [girl], seeing us apparently standing to consider our way, shewed us the road to Plas Newys (Lady Eleanor Butler’s & Miss Ponsonby’s), followed & answered our several questions very civilly. A little boy then came & we gave each of them all our halfpence, 2d. each.

After dinner (the people of the house took it at 10), wrote the following note, ’To the Right Honourable Lady Eleanor Butler & Miss Ponsonby, Plasnewyd. Mrs & Miss Lister take the liberty of presenting their compliments to Lady Eleanor Butler & Miss Ponsonby, & of asking permission to see their grounds at Plas Newyd in the course of tomorrow morning. Miss Lister, at the suggestion of Mr Banks, had intended herself the honour of calling on her ladyship & Miss Ponsonby, & hopes she may be allowed to express her very great regret at hearing of her ladyship’s indisposition. King’s Head Hotel. Saturday evening. 13 July.’

The message returned was that we should see the grounds at 12 tomorrow. This will prevent our going to church, which begins at 11 & will not be over till after 1. The service is principally in Welsh except the lesson & sermon every 2nd Sunday & tomorrow is the English day. Lady Eleanor Butler has been couched. She ventured out too soon & caught cold. Her medical man . . . positively refuses her seeing anyone. Her cousin, Lady Mary Ponsonby, passed thro’ not long ago & did not see her.’

12 July 1823
‘Could not sleep last night. Dozing, hot & disturbed . . . a violent longing for a female companion came over me. Never remember feeling it so painfully before . . . It was absolute pain to me.’

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