Unmarried Women of the Country Estate

Charlotte Furness

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your book ‘Unmarried women of the country estate?

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your book ‘Unmarried women of the country estate? Sure! I am a writer and historian exploring women’s history in connection with country houses and other heritage locations. I am passionate about sharing women’s stories with people as so often they have been ignored in traditional country house history. My book Unmarried Women came about because when I was researching my first book Lady of the House (a book about married women) I came across Elizabeth Isham at Lamport Hall – she was a remarkable woman, so I knew I wanted to write about her life. It also raised lots of questions about other unmarried women in the country house. – how did they live? What aided them to live unmarried? etc. I have aimed to answer some of those questions within the book. How long did it take you to write the book? The process of researching and writing took just over a year, but I would say at least half of that time was researching. I am quite a quick writer and I get really sucked into the narrative, so I prefer to do all the research first, really get to know the person I’m writing about, and then just write their story all in one go. You talk about Anne Lister in your book, was there any notion that the other women were gay/potentially judged as gay by others because they didn’t go down the tradition of marrying a man? I think it’s a conclusion that people often jump to – if she didn’t get married, that must mean she isn’t interested in men, but that’s quite an old-fashioned view and one that I was keen to stay away from without hard proof. There were a vast number of reasons why women didn’t want to marry a man – religious, such as Elizabeth Isham who wanted to devote her life to God; familial, such as with Anne Robinson who put any ideas of marriage to one side to help raise her sister’s children; or simply because they didn’t need a husband, as was the case with Rosalie Chichester. Why would she marry a man and give her wealth and home over to him, when she could live alone with her independence?
Unmarried Women of the Country Estate
Charlotte's book

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Can you tell us some more about Anne Lister for those who don’t know about her?

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.
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Were you able to visit Shibden Hall where Anne lived?

Were you able to visit Shibden Hall where Anne lived? Yes. Luckily, I live in Huddersfield which is only about a fifteen-minute drive from Shibden. In fact, as a child, I spent a lot of time at Shibden, at the park and wandering around the house. I have always been drawn to historical buildings and it’s such a privilege that we get to explore them. What was your favourite part about researching and writing the book and is there a favourite story/extract from Anne’s diary you have? My favourite part about writing my books is most definitely the research stage, when I’m looking for women to include in the manuscript and I’m following clues and leads to explore their lives, you can feel like a detective at times. Then, when you find letters or diaries by that person and you begin to know their personality, their sense of humour, it’s just wonderful, the person comes to life. On top of that, if you can then go to that person’s former home and walk the halls they lived in, see the room where they wrote letters, the roof they mended, the gardens they planted, it really brings them to life. I’m such a history nerd, I get so excited! There are two stories that really make me smile about Anne – the first was when she was practising with a new pistol and she said ‘it bounded out of my hand, forced itself thro’ the window, and broke the lead & panes of glass. My hand felt stunned for some time’. The second was when three ‘shabby-looking men’ were walking close by Shibden Hall in the early hours of the morning, making noise. Anne threatened them away from the house with her pistol by aiming it at them out of the cook's bedroom. As Anne noted, ‘such is the fruit of a footpath so close to the house’. Has it inspired you to try and research more LGBT stories? Yes! In fact, I would love to write a whole book about LGBT history in connection with the country house as I don’t think that has been done before – looking at the lives of previous owners, both male and female, and how their position as gentry or heirs/heiresses impacted their ability to live and love how they wanted to. The pressures and expectations were incredibly high for male heirs of country estates, and then to add on the inability to live as their true authentic selves must have been so difficult. If we can talk about those stories now, then that’s something, but of course, we’ve lost so many letters and diaries that documented gay relationships because decedents often burned or destroyed them. That’s what makes Anne’s diaries so incredible – that they were saved!
Unmarried Women of the Country Estate

Charlotte Furness

I am an author, historian, and heritage researcher. I work within the country house and heritage industry, bringing forgotten or unknown stories to the attention of the public. I research and write books about women’s history, but I also work with private country estates and other heritage organisations to conduct research, to write historical information, and to work with them on interpreting and presenting history to their audiences. I have a master’s degree in country house studies from the University of Leicester and have worked in heritage for over ten years both within visitor services, and now as a historian and writer. I live in Huddersfield, and have worked locally with organisations to discover and present Yorkshire history, something I’m also very passionate about.
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