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My sweet lady Anne

Mon 30 May 2011 In: Movies View at NDHA

Given her high profile last year in the United Kingdom, perhaps the biography and documentary accounts of the life of Anne Lister (1791-1840) will be the lesbian hit at this year's OutTakes. But who was this pivotal figure in lesbian biography? Anne Lister was a celebrated Regency Yorkshire landowner, mountaineer, traveller, businesswoman, entrepreneur and diarist- and the first 'modern lesbian.' Born to a spendthrift father in 1791, she became heir to the Lister estate, Slibden Hall, on the death of a younger brother. In 1806, she had her first lesbian relationship at her last year in high school. Her elder uncle, James Lister, was impressed with his eldest niece's prudence, frugality and civic responsibility, as she had also embarked on a rigorous self-improvement regime which included Greek, Latin, French, mathematics, geometry and economics. She took over Slibden Hall's property management and sought to improve its economic profile, as well as opening and managing an adjacent colliery. As for her romantic history, it was more mixed. Her first love was Isabel Norcliffe, but she then fell in love with Mariana Belcombe in 1812. After Mariana married Charles Lawton for financial security reasons in 1816, their relationship became rocky and fraught. Matters were complicated by the fact that although never closeted, Anne was a devout Anglican and felt that she was engaging in adultery, despite the childless Lawton marriage, which became an open relationship as Charles took his housekeeper as a mistress. Despite this, Charlcs could be vindictive and kept Mariana economically dependent. By 1824, Anne and Mariana were in difficult romantic territory, given that Anne had become involved with expatriate widow Maria Barlow in Paris after a brief visit. While Mariana wanted Anne to tone down her butch public persona, Maria wanted Anne to accentuate those attributes and become a passing woman, so they could enter a feigned marriage and become (im)properly married as "man" and wife. However, Anne was still involved with Mariana, and undertook polyamorous relationships with both women until she finally settled down with a third woman, Anne Walker, in 1832. As Anne Walker was heir to an adjacent property, this was as much a property and inheritance match as one of love, and the two woman made each other joint heirs of each others properties, while Anne Lister helped Anne Walker deal with her perennial bouts of depression. When Anne Lister died of malaria in the Caucasus mountains in Russia in 1840, it broke Anne Walker's heart. Sadly, her mental illness returned, as she died in an asylum in 1854. Mariana Lawton outlived her ex-lover, dying in 1868. How do we know the above? Anne Lister left us her (sometimes coded) diaries from her life and times, and from these, lesbian historians and biographers have been able to draw some fascinating details about this pivotal figure's life, times and candid details about her lesbian loves, relationships and sexuality. Recommended: Helena Whitbread (ed) I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister (1791-1840): London: Virago: 1988. Martha Vicinus: Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women: 1778-1928: Chicago: University of Chicago Press: 2004. Craig Young - 30th May 2011    

Credit: Craig Young

First published: Monday, 30th May 2011 - 10:45am

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