Can you tell us some more about Anne Lister for those who don’t know about her?
I chose Anne Lister for this book because, in the legal sense of the word in 19th century England, she was unmarried, a spinster and so that qualified her for the book. She was also a rich heiress and owned Shibden Hall, an estate in Halifax, West Yorkshire so she had financial and landowning independence. She is more famously known though for being a lesbian and recording her life in remarkable diaries which were hidden for almost a hundred years behind panelling in the Hall. In 1834 Anne was married to Ann Walker in a private ceremony where the two exchanged rings. They then took holy communion together at Holy Trinity Church in York and this was considered by the two women to be a marriage as binding as any between a man and a woman. I certainly consider Anne to have been married, but at the time it was not considered legally binding, and it was that interesting fact that led me to include her in the book. I wanted to discuss marriage and women’s rights in the 19th century from the perspective of an unusual character. When Anne died in 1840, she left Shibden Hall, her Halifax estate, to Ann, but it was contested by the Lister family and eventually overturned.
What struck you most about Anne Lister’s story?
For me it was the way that she lived her life – she wasn’t exactly open about her sexuality, but neither did she hide it. Most people in the area and within the social circles she moved in were aware that she preferred the company of women, and whilst Anne did note in her diaries that some people were judgmental or prejudiced, there were also some kind friends and family who accepted her completely. She dressed in a way that flouted feminine convention, wearing top hats and waistcoats; she shot pistols, collected rents, opened an inn, ran a mine, negotiated coal prices, pressed her tenants to vote in elections, built and grew the Shibden estate and more. I wanted to know more about her life beyond her sexuality. Yes, it is a crucial part of who she was as a woman and it certainly impacted absolutely everything about her, but I also wanted to look at her work, her home life, her education to get a well-rounded sense of her character.
How difficult was it to research Anne Lister for your book?
Compared to other women in my book, it was actually quite easy and that is thankfully down to the really hard work of Helena Whitbread who is the absolute authority on the life of Anne Lister. She rediscovered Anne’s diaries in the archives in the 1980s and spent many years decoding the invented crypthand that Anne used for her writing. Without these translations, we wouldn’t know anywhere near as much about the life of Anne Lister, so it’s thanks to her hard work that I could then read through almost all of Anne’s diary entries as well as letters and other source material. That being said, it’s always hard to research a historical person – you’ve to dig into archives, follow clues and leads, read many books. It can be intimidating at times.