The Diaries of Anne Lister

The archival document I chose for this project was a diary entry written by Anne Lister on September 20th of 1824. Anne Lister’s series of diary entries document her life as a lesbian just before the start of the Victorian Era. Her diary includes entries ranging from 1824 to 1826 and contain information on her daily life including her sexual and romantic relationships, her role as a woman and landowner in the economy, and the social regulations placed upon her as a lesbian.

I chose my particular entry because it is one of the first times Lister is shown discussing her sexuality with another person. In this entry, Lister discusses how she told Mrs. Barlow that she “preferred ladies’ company to gentlemen’s.” I found it very interesting that Lister followed this statement with the claim, “Did many things ladies in general could not do, but did them quietly.” This particular statement seemed to be a remark on the liberating factor of being a lesbian, for Lister is arguing that her sexuality gives her a certain element of freedom. Although I can not say what exactly Lister is saying she can do that other women can not, one that is definite is her being a landowner. She explains that upon her uncle’s death, she was given his land; however, “He had no high opinion of ladies- was not fond of leaving estates to female. Were I other than I am, would not leave his to me.” This quote hints at Lister’s own divergence from the Victorian narrative of being a heterosexual, proper lady. Rather, she describes herself throughout her diaries as being more masculine both in her stature and in her sexual desires. Due to these traits that are geared towards masculinity, Lister was able to inherit her uncle’s land.

This is one example of attention to sexual identity that Lister exhibits in her diary entries. Eve Segwick in her book “Tendencies”  discusses elements of sexual identity which include “he preponderance of your traits of personality and appearance, masculine of feminine,” “The gender assignment of your preferred partner” and “your self-perception as gay or straight.”  Each of these forms of looking at sexual identity are brought up in this diary entry of Anne Lister. As she talks about her gender, her sexual identity, and the gender of her preferred partner, Lister is going against the heteronormative narrative that is present in much of the Victorian era. She identifies as a woman who seeks out romantic and sexual relationships with other women, thus forming a queer narrative. Her divergence from femininity and heterosexuality make Anne Lister’s diary entries queer.

Link to Victorian Queer Archive: