The Ghosts of Anne Lister -The Toast

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Ruth Scobie’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.

Good morning everyone, shall we get started? Has everyone got a handout?

OK, last week I was talking about Anne Lister as a nineteenth-century woman traveller and industrialist, and about the significance of particular geographical locations as loci of economic or emotional power.

If anyone has any questions about their essays there’ll be time at the end.

Now, I think I mentioned how important the city of York was in this period as a social and cultural centre, and that Lister received some of her education there. Despite being expelled as a teenager, Lister revisited the Manor School in York more than once, including a school concert in December 1821.

This may seem strange, but remember that by her late twenties Lister was not only known to be heir to her uncle’s estate but had moved into Shibden Hall, and was an important enough member of local society that she could hardly, as she noted in her journal, avoid being shown “the music, dancing, specimens of work etc., of the schoolgirls.” She did not enjoy the visit in 1821, adding in code that the only company had been “vulgar girls & a few others, & the rag, tag & bobtail there.”

More revealingly, perhaps, she admitted that she had been uncomfortable to be accompanied by Marianna Lawton, her long-term lover, who lived in York. Lister had begun the previous year by burning the poetry of a male admirer and writing the decisive statement that “I love, & only love, the fairer sex & thus beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any other love than theirs.”

If you’ve got questions that’s great, we’ll have time later.

Lister had first made this discovery about herself as a teenage boarder in the Manor School, where she shared an attic bedroom with an Anglo-Indian girl, Eliza Raine (1). The two girls had called each other husband and wife, and had exchanged rings and promises to elope together. After Lister’s expulsion, they had written to each other, but Lister had gradually lost interest and looked elsewhere (2). By the time of her school visit 1821 she could have looked out from her old bedroom (3) over a city which had been the setting for many of her flirtations and affairs: in the drawing rooms and bedrooms of local houses, the elegant York Assembly Rooms, and the Black Swan Inn. Back home in Halifax, she kept a collection of locks of women’s pubic hair as secret souvenirs and trophies (4).

From the windows of the upper floors of the Manor School (5), she could have seen Bootham, a grand street running northwest to Clifton and the Quaker Asylum where Raine had been confined since she was declared insane in 1814. If the wind was from the east (6) when Lister visited King’s Manor, she might have been able to hear the bells from the church of St Michael le Belfrey, where Marianna, desperate for social and economic security, had married Charles Lawton in 1816 [the romantic and sexual partnership between the two women continued (7)], or from Holy Trinity Church on Goodramgate, where in 1834 Lister would eventually take part in a blessing ceremony which solemnised her marriage to Ann Walker. Walker was a docile heiress from a neighbouring estate – a convenient wife for Lister, who always preferred her women to be conventionally feminine and genteel, and who would become, increasingly, as cynical as any Regency rake about using marriage to secure extra income and domestic comforts (8). Financial independence allowed her, in the years to come, to renovate Shibden Hall and invest in coal mines, to study anatomy in Paris, climb mountains, and travel widely in Europe, Persia and Russia.


(1) One afternoon Lister’s biographer, Helena Whitbread, told us that she thought this room, then called ‘the Slope’ and now unused, was the one next door to the small graduate workroom a group of us used at King’s Manor. It was perhaps inevitable that an office full of humanities postgrads would adopt the attic’s old resident Anne Lister half-jokingly as a kind of fairy godmother. She wasn’t part of my research, but I read her journals obsessively.

(2) Something of a predatory fairy godmother perhaps. A role model? A heroine? Not a hero or a heroine but a gallant. Marianne used to call her ‘Fred’. Like Captain Wentworth in Persuasion. An imaginary lover, though not one from Austen but from Brontë: the one who wears all-black and strides about on the moors in a man’s greatcoat, gives you a filthily inscribed edition of Don Juan, fucks you in a coaching inn, and leaves you heartbroken, deciding that, after all you are really as vulgar and stupid as you fear you might be.

(3) Anyway, the year I wrote up my thesis, I started to stay later and later in the attic workroom. It was usually empty by sunset. These rooms were old when Lister lived here. Now they’re old and filled with slightly battered computers and conference posters. As the name of the neighbouring room suggests, the floors slope.

(4) “Yet my manners are certainly peculiar, not all masculine but rather softly gentleman-like. I know how to please girls”

(5) The ceiling is low and curved like something organic between black beams. The windows are too old and too precious to be replaced and let in soft little breaths of night air and the murmur and rattle of pigeons nesting on the roofs outside. The fluorescent light is pale, and it shivers occasionally, as though someone was walking overhead.

(6) Sometimes, in the empty darkening office the draft would wake a computer sleeping at another desk, and the screen would blink itself on and sit lit up and alive for a few minutes. I texted a friend: “Here in KM reading about the history of mourning practices and the COMPUTERS ARE ALIVE and THE DOOR KEEPS CREAKING FOR NO REASON. If you only find my shoes here in the morning – ”

(7) “she seems innocent & unknowing as to the ways of the world.  I wonder if I can ever, or shall ever, mould her to my purpose”

(8) “I have the figure & nature of a man. Have not beauty but agreeable features tho’ not those of a woman”


As the cultural critic Terry Castle has pointed out, and there’s an extract from her book on the handout, “the sheer number and ease of her conquests (in one case she had sexual relations with all four sisters in one family) suggest how common casual homosexuality may have been.” In Lister’s society: it was not openly discussed, but sex with a woman, for a young lady in 1821, probably provoked less risk of scandal than extramarital sex with a man, and no risk of illegitimate pregnancy. Lister found something approaching a community and role models in classical literature and the gender non-conformity of Byron’s Don Juan, but also among contemporary women such as the famous Ladies of Llangollen, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, who had escaped from arranged marriages to live together, or more locally, in women such as the butch and intellectual Miss Pickford, with whom she had guarded conversations about the sixth satire of Juvenal and relationships with women; prompting Lister to wonder if “there [are] more Miss Pickfords in the world than I have ever thought of?” (9)

Could it be, as Castle suggests, that history is haunted by invisible women like Lister and Miss Pickford, most of whom lived their lives and were then forgotten? So Lister may be a unique historical figure not because of her sexual and romantic preferences, nor even because she had the financial, social and personal resources to act on them in the way she chose – although this was clearly very unusual – but because she kept a detailed record of her life and loves, and because that record survives (10).

Her journals are extraordinarily detailed and outspoken: they contain more than four million words, around a sixth of them in a code based on the Greek alphabet, which she called “crypthand.” (11) After her death in the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia in 1840, her widow, having arranged for Lister’s body to be embalmed and returned to the north of England for burial, gathered up the twenty-six volumes and concealed them behind a panel in the walls of Shibden Hall (12) before moving back to her family home. They stayed there until the late nineteenth century, when one of the inheritors of the hall, with an antiquarian friend, began to publish extracts from the uncoded sections and to decode the crypthand passages. Their discovery, in the homophobic 1890s (13), that the journals contained what they called “an intimate account of homosexual practices between Miss Lister and her many ‘friends’” predictably horrified the two men (14), and they considered burning the books before replacing them in their hiding place. The hall became a public museum in 1934, and Lister’s papers, including a key to the code, became public property. Lister’s sexuality nevertheless remained a scholarly secret (15) – one biographer insisted that this story would be “excruciatingly tedious to the modern mind” – until they came to the attention of feminist historians in the 1980s. Since then they have been added to the UNESCO Memory (16) of the World Register, become an influence on writers such as Jeanette Winterson and Sarah Waters, and was adapted into a BBC drama and documentary, scenes (17) for which were (18) filmed here in York (19).

Does anyone have any questions before I go on?


(9) The friend answered or she didn’t answer. Sometimes she wouldn’t answer for days. The sounds were reassuring rather than otherwise, anyway, and the thesis quickly swallowed me back up. Feet tucked up on the chair, reading.

(10) “a violent longing for a female companion came over me. Never remember feeling it so painfully before”

(11) All the lonely writing you do as a postgrad, all the conference papers and reviews; and by that last year the whole field had come to seem like a grand room in a country house, full of men in expensive suits drinking sherry, who by some accident had let you in but wouldn’t or couldn’t see who you were or hear what you were saying – 

(12) The rustle of pages hidden behind one of the panels, a ghost beating with her fists to be let out from inside the walls.

(13) Anne’s journals can be unsettling, because they sometimes confess to loneliness but rarely to the dangers and the hatred aimed at her. These things are there, though, between the lines. Her local nickname was “Gentleman Jack”, which might be admiring or even affectionate, but then she hears mutters that she is a man. People seem to avoid her. Later, effigies of Anne and her wife are burned in Halifax. A hoax advertisement, giving her personal details and claiming she wants a sweetheart, was been placed in a newspaper; there followed a series of anonymous letters, stalkers and attacks. As she walked alone a man in a soldier’s greatcoat follows her, then, a few days later, a man, youngish & well enough dressed. The journal does not mention fear, only that Anne defended herself and was aiming a blow when the fellow ran off as fast as he could & very fast it was. She tells herself that the harassment is soon over & I think the writers will tire, by & by. You imagine you can feel her heart racing as she writes the words.

(14) “intently thinking still & feeling desolate & unhappy. I cannot dress like the rest. I want someone whom I can respect & dote on, always at my elbow.”

(15) The windows in King’s Manor have heavy wrought-iron fasteners, hinged arms which you can use to prop the windows open. One night in December someone must have left the fastener of a window in the room next door unhooked somehow, because without warning it fell. The bang was so loud that I thought the glass had cracked.

(16) As I breathed in, I could hear the loose iron arm creaking softly and tapping on the pane, not regularly, but in odd bursts as the wind blew.

(17) You can’t do anything useful with a sound like that driving you mad, so I went to fix it. There’s no door between the rooms. I had to go in a C-shape up a steep set of stairs into the upper corridor, then back down more stairs into the empty room. The corridor was mostly used for storage: old unwanted filing cabinets make it narrow, and old costumes from student plays, piled on top, brushed my sleeve. I couldn’t find the light switch, which was somewhere hidden behind the junk, so I shone my phone on the uneven stairs down into Anne’s old room. The window fastener had stopped tapping, I realised. I couldn’t even hear the wind.

(18) I stopped on the bottom step and looked up. The room was darker than I had realised, so dark that the wall opposite was lost in it. My faint light swung up and found the dusty top of a desk and the glitter of a diamond paned window behind. Then without a sound the phone went dark and I could see nothing. As though waiting for a signal, there was another burst of tapping – but louder, flatter, much louder, as loud as boots striding across the floorboards, straight towards me without hesitation.

(19) My phone woke up and the room was silent. A pale woman’s face stared at me from the darkness outside the window.

Ruth Scobie is a postdoc research fellow at the University of Oxford, working on eighteenth-century celebrity culture. She would really like to talk about old newspapers, Sarah Siddons, Mary Shelley, and the flouncier wardrobe choices of British naval captains in the 1780s, if those seem like things you’d be interested in.

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