Anne Lister’s Diary, 30th March 1834

Anne Lister’s Diary, 30th March 1834

Contributor: Helene Grøn

Location: Calderdale, West Yorkshire Archive Service

Description: Anne Lister’s diaries were written between 1806 and her death in 1840, containing four million words mostly written in legible hand that detail her life as a high-class, Tory landowner residing in Shibden Hall. A small portion, like this entry, is written in the coded language that Lister called her ‘crypthand’, which makes for a mysterious-looking and illegible document in its mix of ‘Greek letters with symbols of her own devising’ (Lister and Whitbread 2010, xiii). The use of crypthand ‘allowed her the freedom to describe her intimate life in great detail’ (xiii), and with assured secrecy from any prying contemporary who might get it into their heads to read her diaries. It took until sixty years after Lister’s death until her relative John, the last Lister living in Shibden Hall, decided to attempt to decode the crypthand passages together with his antiquarian friend Anthony Burrell. What they found was so disturbing that Burrell suggested the diaries be burned, and John responded by hiding them behind a panel at Shibden Hall. Here they remained until his death in 1933, where Shibden Hall and its inventory passed to Halifax Town Council, making the diaries public property. Even so, it took until the 1980s before it came to light, beyond a narrow circle of scholars and historians, what had been so shocking for John Lister and Burrell: the ‘sections written in code discussed Lister’s romantic affairs with other women’ (Campbell 2022, 2).

The subversiveness of the diaries goes beyond the use of code and descriptions of love between women. At a time where heterosexual relationships dominated the public life of marriage and love, Lister’s diaries are full of ‘quasi-matrimonial rituals, in which she exchanges symbolic tokens with lovers as a sign of “marital commitment”: rings, locks of hair’ (Joyce 2019, 602). While scholars have broadly agreed that Mariana Belcombe, later Lawton, was the love of Lister’s life, this page is from 30th of March 1834, where Anne Lister took sacrament with Ann Walker in the Holy Trinity Church in York. It reads:

At Goodramgate church at 10 35/”; Miss W – and I and Thomas staid [for] the sacrament  […] “The first time I ever joined Miss W – in my prayers – I had prayed that our union might be happy – she had not thought of doing as much for me” (Liddington 1998, 100)

With this entry, Lister is heralded as someone ‘who made history by celebrating and recording the first ever known marriage to another woman’ (Choma 2019). And yet, what should be the happiest day in someone’s life is devoid of the romantic language Lister usually uses to describe her love affairs. This might have been because ‘Lister thought the couple were already in a de facto marriage when she entered the church’ (Joyce 2019, 603), but it has equally been suspected that Lister and Walker’s marriage was one of convenience rather than love, where Walker’s mercantile fortune ‘supplement[ed] the dwindling Lister family finances’ (Joyce 2019, 607). Yet, the ritual and institution of marriage nonetheless seems to provide Lister with a language for desiring companionship and love, even if it remains an impossibility to be wed in the eyes of the law. Lister uses lack of love as an excuse not to marry the eligible men she met (Campbell 2022, 2), and when Mariana becomes ‘another man’s wife’ (Lister and Whitbread 2010, 120), Lister agonises over the ‘criminality of our connection’ (120), seemingly referring to their extra-marital affair as ‘criminal’, rather than the fact that they are two women loving each other.

How the person who wrote she had ‘No priest but love’ (Whitbread 1993), would still wish for the ceremonial legitimacy of marriage in the space of a church seems puzzling, but shows perhaps both the imaginative approach to the ‘codes of marriage [and marriage as a] psychic necessity’ (Roulston 2018, 183). This self-asserted and performative approach to marriage questions the connection between love and law. For those who only have the performative, but not statutory or church-sanctioned aspects of marriage available to them, the rituals of ‘I do’ remains ‘imitative, and therefore endlessly reproducible’ (Roulston 2018, 196), producing, perhaps, ‘a form of romantic exceptionalism’ (Roulston 2018, 187). If Lister vowed and exchanged rings in a time where marriage was also a kind of social security, the enactment of rituals that denote similar vows to marriage in the promise of love and companionship unfolds the institution beyond its legal category as creating and ‘identifying [an] immutable tie, to safeguard emotional connection’ (Brake 2012, 43). If marriage, beyond its institutional framework, is an investment in and hope for a future of love and companionship, Lister’s interpretation of the ceremony unfolds what happens when love is promised, or that love has the potential to keep happening and be ‘endlessly reproducible’ in each moment of ‘I do’.

In recent years, Lister has become widely known in part due to Helen Whitbread’s impressive work translating, transcribing and publishing the diaries, in part because of the 2009 BBC fictional biography of Lister and the 2019 BBC and HBO series Gentleman Jack. Lister and Walker’s marriage is memorialised with a rainbow plaque, and the importance of the diaries to queer and lesbian history was acknowledged by including them in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. While these memorialising acts strive for a kind of posthumous legitimacy of Lister’s marriages, glancing over the passages of the diaries, we might understand how viewers since John Lister and Anthony Burrell have been struck by the fluidity between code and legible hand. Considering how ‘queerness has always been associated with codes’ (Roulston 2013, 268), the use of crypthand could be seen as a desire for separating private from public, but the diaries also show the hand of an uncompromising individual, in whose reality ‘transparency and secrecy, voicing and silencing’ (Hamilton 2022, 6) existed as side-by-side.

Date: March 1834

Creator: Anne Lister

Media rights: West Yorkshire Archive Service. Image courtesy of @wyorksarchives.

Object type: Diary Page

Publisher: Image courtesy of @westyorkshirearchive

Catalogue Number: SH:7/ML/E/17/0014


Brake, Elizabeth. 2012. Minimizing Marriage. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Campbell, Jessica. 2022. “Can We Call Anne Lister a Lesbian?” Journal of Lesbian Studies.

Choma, Anne. 2019. Gentleman Jack: The Real Anne Lister. London, United Kingdom: Penguin Books.

Hamilton, Rebecca. 2022. “‘Impossibility of Its Being Deciphered’: Anne Lister, Her ‘Crypt Hand’ Diaries, and the Contrast between Voicing and Silencing.” Journal of Lesbian Studies.

Joyce, Simon. 2019. “The Perverse Presentism of Rainbow Plaques: Memorializing Anne Lister.” Nineteenth-Century Contexts.

Liddington, Jill, ed. 1998. Female Fortune: Land, Gender and Authority. The Anne Lister Diaries and Other Writings, 1833–36. London: River Orams Press.

Lister, Anne, and Helena Whitbread. 2010. The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister. Edited by Helena Whitebread. London, United Kingdom: Virago Press.

Roulston, Chris. 2013. “The Revolting Anne Lister The U.K.’s First Modern Lesbian.” Journal of Lesbian Studies 17 (3–4): 267–78.

———. 2018. “Marriage and Its Queer Identification in the Anne Lister Diaries.” In After Marriage in the Long Eighteenth Century: Literature, Law and Society, edited by Jenny DiPlacidi and Karl Leydecker, 181–204. Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.

Whitbread, Helena. 1993. No Priest But Love: The Journals of Anne Lister From 1824-1826 (The Cutting Edge: Lesbian Life and Literature Series, 5). New York, USA: NYU Press.