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:


The Depiction of Culture in Victorian Art


I was immediately drawn to this image the moment I walked into the trout gallery during out last class. I am interested in the way in which the exotic was portrayed as something dangerous and threatening within this image. The contrasting colors of the pearly whiteness of the woman’s skin being overtaken by the contrasting dark snake is one of the many ways in which shading within this image seems to represent racial sentiments. The fact that the man in the background is watching this happen and blends into the background furthers this feeling of uneasiness and danger that is often associated with “the other” during the Victorian Era. I believe this shading is intentional for the author’s hopes to convey the danger of the exotic and other cultures.

I think it is important to analyze the artist’s choice of using a snake within this image. Snakes have the connotation of being evil, stealth, and sneaky. These connotations go as far back as the bible, whereas the snake tricked Eve into committing sin and giving into temptation. Thus, snakes generally represent deceit and allurement. One thing I didn’t think of upon looking at this image but that was brought up by a peer was the sensuality of  the woman’s face. In the image, the snake seems to be seducing the woman almost, while also constricting her. Perhaps this was meant to induce fear amongst viewers of other cultures being dangerous, exotic, and having the ability to tempt the innocent to sin.

Another aspect of this image I found to be very interesting was Professor Flaherty’s explanation that this picture depicted a sort of mash up of different cultures. The walls, the clothing of the man, the instrument, the materials; all belong to separate cultures. I believe that this indicated the tendency for Victorian peoples to lump ‘exotic’ cultures together into one ‘other.’ This seems to indicate that people of this time do not necessarily care about these cultures and their characteristics and uniqueness, but rather sees them as all the same, exemplifying the very definition of egocentrism.

All in all, this image represents both the fear of Victorians towards the exotic and their lack of education on the subject. This is just a theory, but at a time where travel and communication between people from across the world was very uncommon, the exotic or the ‘others’ likely became something of mystery. Tales of explorers may have reached those who have never left the country, but these tend to be exaggerated and changed through word of mouth. Furthermore, people tend to be afraid of things they don’t understand. Thus, this image represents both the fear of the exotic and the lack of knowledge on other cultures.

Women, Nature, and Beauty

One theme I have been noticing during our recent studies on Victorian  Sexualities is the theme of women being connected to nature. In John Keats’ poem, “La Belle Dame sans Merci: A Ballad” the woman is described as ethereal and immersed in her natural setting. The scene is described near a lake with birds, squirrels, and harvests. Although the scene is being set up as eerie and lacking of life, the poem is still placed in the natural world immediately.  One particularly striking stanza is when Keats writes, “I see a lily on thy brow,/ With anguish moist and fever-dew,/ and on the cheeks a fading rose/ Fast withereth too.” The mention of flowers and dew in this stanza is one of the many ways the narrator using aspects of the natural world  to describe the beauty of the woman he is enchanted by. This portrayal of the beautiful woman as immersed in nature is also shown in the painting titled, “The Fair Dreamer.” This piece, published by the Illman brothers in the nineteenth century, depicts a young woman lounging on a tree, immersed in the shrubbery. Both the woman in the poem and the woman in the painting are portrayed as the epitome of beauty, and both are connected to the natural world. As I mentioned once in class, Sherry B. Ortner’s, “Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture” describes how women have been linked throughout history to nature whereas men have been connected to culture and progress. I noticed this in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” as well where the women were always somehow connected to nature whereas Frankenstein was the epitome of science and progress. I have been thinking about why this is and one theory I have come up with is that women and nature have two things in common; they are seen as mysterious and as beautiful. Man has been entranced from the beginning of time by nature and its force. In fact, most pronouns for nature are she/her/hers. Nature has also been linked to women as it has been ‘dominated’ by men, similar to the way men have ‘dominated’ society and women, in particular. As a result, in much of our literature and art, women are described as and portrayed as very close to the natural world.

The Theme of Identity within WIW

Identity plays an important role in ‘The Woman in White” both subliminally and in terms of pushing the plot forward. The eerie similarity between Anne and Laura and the mystery of Sir Percival Glyde’s true background all serve as plot elements that add mystery and suspense to this novel; however, themes of identity are also present in a more subtle way throughout “The Woman in White.” Aspects of one’s identity such as gender, sexuality, race, and class and the way in which these interact with one another to form one’s position in society are highlighted throughout this novel. This is exemplified in the paragraph where Walter speaks about Laura’s supposed death.

“In the eye of reason and of law, in the estimation of relatives and friends, according to every received formality of civilized society, ‘Laura, Lady Glyde’ lay buried with her mother in Limmeridge churchyard. Torn in her own lifetime from the list of the living, the daughter of Philip Fairlie and the wife of Percival Glyde might still  exist for her sister, might still exist for me, but to all the world besides she was dead. Dead to her uncle who had renounced her; dead to the servants of the house, who had failed to recognise her; dead to the persons in authority who has transmitted her fortune to her husband and her aunt; dead to my mother and my sister, who believed me to be the dupe of an adventuress and the victim of a fraud; socially, morally, legally- dead.” (p.413).

There is much to unpack from the quote written above. What first caught my eye was the way in which Laura’s identities related to her class and gender are explicated by the language above. Walter’s decision to used the word “civilized” society was the one indication for me that class is clearly an essential part of his view of Laura. That and the mention of her servants exhibits the way in which Laura’s class was a means upon which Walter worshipped her and saw her as a worthy object of his gaze. She is describes as beautiful, pale, graceful, and a member of the upperclass, making her the stereotypical ‘perfect’ woman of the victorian era.

Another form of identity that manifests itself in this quote  is that of gender. I found it interesting that when talking of Laura, she is described as the “daughter” and “wife” to the two powerful men in her life. This was interesting for me in that she is described as a daughter and wife to men rather than a woman in and of herself. Instead, she is described in relation to the powerful and privileged men of her life that she technically belonged to.  This paragraph again exemplifies intersectional identities through Walter’s explication of Laura sudden disappearance from the land of the living.

Another part of this quote I found interesting was Laura’s seemingly lack of a distinct identity and Walter’s seemingly confusion as to how a person can suddenly be gone. It seems to me that this novel is concerned with the way in which identity is not distinct or intrinsic. In fact, it is very easy for one to lie about their identity or lose it suddenly. Walter seems to be grappling with this throughout the novel as he is constantly confused by the identities of those around him. I plan on doing more research about identity within the Victorian Period but there seems to be a lot of anxiety surrounding this topic.

Walter’s First Encounter With Laura and Marian- Gender, Whiteness, and Class

As with most readings of gender, it is important to look at it with an intersectional lens- one that acknowledges how different identities interact to form statures of privilege. I believe that developing a deeper understanding of the way in which Walter describes women in this novel can shed light upon Collins’ social commentary on gender, class, and race. When Walter first meets Marian, he says, “She left the window- and I said to myself, The lady is dark. She moved forward a few steps- and I said to myself, The lady is young. She approached nearer-and I said to myself, The lady is ugly!” (p.34). Looking at the syntax of these few sentences shows several interruptions from commas and hyphens, making every phrase short and abrupt. These short, abrupt sentences give the reader an unflattering feeling as they meet Marian with Walter, one that is unsettling. Just as he is initially confused and skeptical, as is the reader who feels Walter’s hesitation through the syntax. Walter continues to describe Marian as having a complexion that was, “almost swarthy,” and ,”the dark brown on her upper lip was almost a mustache, She had a large, firm, masculine mouth and jaw; prominent, piercing, resolute brown eyes; and thick, coal-black hair, growing unusually low down on her forehead. Her expression….appeared, while she was silent, to be altogether wanting in those feminine attractions of gentleness and pliability, without which the beauty of the handsomest woman alive is incomplete,” (p.35).  The last sentence of this quote is worth noting as it explicitly states what a woman needs to be considered beautiful; gentleness and pliability. There is an emphasis in this description on both gender and race as Marian is described as having very masculine, strong, dark features. This contrasts the very feminine women Walter meets throughout the novel, especially Walter’s love interest, Laura, who is described as, “fair and pretty,” (p.37). Later, Walter describes her with similar language, saying that she is a, “light, youthful figure…with a little straw hat of the natural colour, plainly and sparingly tripped with ribbon to match the gown, covers her head, and throws its soft pearly shadow over the upper part of her face. Her hair is so faint and a pale brown,” (p.51). It was fascinating for me to read this description of Laura, as Walter is so clearly infatuated with her, but the feature that makes him so attracted to her is her inherent whiteness. This, along with her stereotypical femininity that portrays her as weak, are almost exclusively what Walter is attracted to. The description of Laura and Marian contrast drastically because of two dichotomies: masculine vs. feminine and dark vs. light. The diction Collins uses here seems very deliberate to me, in that the author seems to be explicitly showing Walter’s inherent biases. The words “light,” “fair,” “pale,” “faint,” as I see it, are Collins’ way of portraying the standard of beauty for women in the Victorian Period. I believe that I need to read more of the book to better understand Collins’ social commentary, but for now, it is clear to me that Collins is setting up a reality of modern society in which beauty is equated with whiteness and weakness. This standard excludes women like Marian, who are intelligent, kind, and interesting. Making Marian such a likable character yet “unattractive” pushes me to believe that Collins is in fact critiquing a world in which a woman’s value is based upon her beauty. However, it troubles me that there are no women in the novel that are both attractive and intelligent.