This spring the TV drama ‘Gentleman Jack’ will introduce the fascinating Anne Lister to a wider audience. Sally Wainwright’s drama focuses on only a short portion of Lister’s life from 1832, after she had returned from travelling in Britain and Europe to concentrate on the development of her estate at Shibden Hall near Halifax, West Yorkshire. I have been studying Lister’s diaries as part of my doctoral research into manuscript travel journals recording tours of Scotland and Wales in the 1820s, and discovered just how much they reveal about the aspirations and the emotional life of this striking character at a period when she was contemplating her options for a future alliance with a female partner.
The section of Lister’s diary covering the summer of 1828 which she spent in Scotland in the company of the Scottish noblewoman Sibella Maclean is not well-known because it is not included in the extracts which have been transcribed and published. I am very grateful to Helena Whitbread for bringing the Scottish tour to my attention, as the only reference to it in print is in Muriel Green’s edition of Lister’s letters (1992), which is long out of print and hard to find. Only recently (2018) has the English translation of Angela Steidel’s Gentleman Jack: A biography of Anne Lister, Regency Landowner, Seducer and Secret Diarist highlighted Anne and Sibella’s relationship. Working from digital photos from West Yorkshire Archive Service, Calderdale, I read and roughly transcribed the 100 or so pages (about 70, 000 words) which make up her entries from late May to early August 1828.
Finding a life partner
What I soon realized was that by 1828 Anne Lister had come to the difficult decision that she could no longer wait for the death of the husband of her long-term lover, Mariana Lawton, allowing the pair to live together. Lister approached finding a new female companion and lover in a typically pragmatic and business-like manner. She fixed her sights on Sibella Maclean (Isabella Jean Maclean, 1790-1830, daughter of Alexander Maclean of Coll) whom she had met in York in 1820. Anne was introduced to Sibella by the Norcliffes (Isabella “Tib” was Anne’s friend and occasional lover), and they formed a friendship which was continued by correspondence throughout the 1820s. Much of Sibella’s appeal for Anne lay in her good breeding as a member of an ancient Scottish family and the opportunity she offered Anne for social advancement. On Lister’s tour through Scotland with Sibella Maclean the two women became lovers and Anne began to consider Sibella as a life partner. Lister had confided in her diary as early as 1822 “I would rather spend my life with Miss Maclean than any one”. The seriousness of the relationship is attested to by the fact that Anne persuaded Sibella to buy her a ring at a jewellers in Glasgow and recorded in a coded passage in her diary on 11 June “Miss MacLean put on my finger the little guard ring”. Visiting the Macleans at their home on the island of Mull, Lister tried to persuade them that (presumably on the grounds of health) Sibella should come and live with her in Paris. In the event, Sibella’s deteriorating health would prevent her from going abroad, and she would die of consumption in 1830.
In the course of my wider research I have found that tours could often reinforce familial relationships (between father and son, husband and wife, extended family) and be utilised as a means to cement social and business relations. Lister’s tour can be understood in this context, but she subverts the orthodox model by using the tour to develop the emotional and sexual bond between the two women.
The Scottish Tour
Anne Lister arrived in Edinburgh on 19 May 1828 and she and Sibella Maclean travelled together around Scotland finishing their tour at Sibella’s home on the island of Mull on 22 July. After spending some time with the family on Mull, Lister started out alone on her homeward journey to Yorkshire, taking in more tourist sites in the Scottish borders, and arriving back at Shibden on 15 August. During their tour Anne and Sibella visited many of the usual tourist spots in the vicinity of Glasgow, including the Trossachs and Loch Lomond, and around Tayside. They also made use of the new steamboat services to travel round the East coast, visiting St Andrews, Elgin and Inverness, and visit the Highland forts and the Western Isles.
For many years Anne Lister had used a code of her own devising to record intimate details in her diary (such as sexual activity, bowel movements, health, menstruation) and so her account of her tour in Scotland has two parallel narratives running alongside each other: one recording her personal journey towards a more intimate and more formal union (including discussions of finances) with Sibella, and the other describing the practicalities of the material journey through Scotland by coach and steamboat. This supports Caroline L Eisner’s suggestion that the diary enabled Lister to maintain two selves, through the use of a code to divide, at least on paper, “her deviant self from her public self”. Travel, I think, offered Lister a space where she could explore the boundaries between those two selves.
Writing for posterity?
In Halifax and York society Lister was regarded as peculiar because of her manners and dress. As Sibella’s travelling companion she had the opportunity of moving beyond her normal social sphere. Many of the concerns expressed in Lister’s diaries relate to how she was perceived by others and describe her desire for social advancement and acceptance amongst her peers and superiors. She prided herself on her observance of etiquette and strove to make a good impression in society.
Like others who have studied Lister’s diaries I share the disconcerting sense that Anne Lister expected her diaries to be read one day. Anne might be proud today that she is the subject of media attention, yet in her own lifetime she sought to carefully conceal her lesbian relationships to protect her social position. Whilst she wrote in her diary of how she felt her love for women was natural, she was aware that roles such as landowner or tourist were also facets of her identity which shaped how she was perceived by her contemporaries. These personas might be used to signal an outward respectability whilst gently pushing at the boundaries of what was socially acceptable.
Anne Lister’s Scottish tour is analysed further in my forthcoming article in Studies in Travel Writing.
References & further reading
Caroline L. Eisner “Shifting the Focus: Anne Lister as a Pillar of Conservatism”, a/b: Auto/Biographical Studies vol. 17 (2001), 28-42.
Kirsty McHugh & Elizabeth Edwards, Online edition of Anne Lister’s 1822 tour of Wales.
Angela Steidele (transl. Katy Derbyshire) Gentleman Jack: A biography of Anne Lister, Regency Landowner, Seducer and Secret Diarist, London: Serpent’s Tail, 2018.
Helena Whitbread (ed.), The secret diaries of Miss Anne Lister (1791-1840), Virago, 2010.