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The diaries of Britain's "first modern lesbian" are decoded after five years of work



Logs are made to keep secrets.

And no diaries contain more intrigue than those of the early 19th century Yorkshire heiress Ann Lister – 26 volumes, so full of scandalous revelations that they are written in a sophisticated code of the author's own work, and then hidden in her home in Yorkshire for 100 years.

They tell her of her life as Shibden Hall's mistress in Halifax, her land and coal, her friendships with local courtesy, and travels through France and Russia. They reveal it as an insatiable reader of classics and snobs. More sensationally, they record its frankly insatiable interest in seduction of women without blushing.

"I love and love only the gentle sex," she said, "and loved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any other love than from theirs."

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* New Drama Gentleman Jack projects powerful 19th-century women

But the story of Lister remains remarkably little known for generations. Only now thanks to Gentleman JackThe new British television series, starring Susan Jones, will make the public aware of the remarkable woman who some say she is the first modern lesbian in the UK.

Once they do, many will find – as her many lovers have realized – that almost no one is more charismatic and unforgettable.

I need to know. Although Ann Lister died in 1840, almost a century before I was born, I have been obsessed with it for almost 40 years: a love story that started when I was 51 and took me to decode and copy her diaries – all four million words and 6,600 pages of them.

It was 1983, my children grew up, I recently finished my education in politics and literature and wanted to start a new career as a writer. I knew a little of Lister, born about a mile away from Shibby Hall – until then a gift from the local council – and I often visited his park as a child.

I was aware of the archive of letters and magazines, but when I learned, some of them were written in code – a mixture of Greek, Latin, mathematical symbols and a zodiac – I was hooked.

The code was first broken by John Lister, the last descendant of the family, and a friend named Arthur Burel in the mid-1990s. They found a sentence with the words "In God Me," followed by four symbols that could only stand for N, O, R, and E. That allowed them to unlock the rest – but what they found in the few excerpts they deciphered, terrified.

John Lister was not particularly prudent – his fear was that if the diaries were publicly disclosed, his own homosexuality would be revealed. Burleel wanted to burn them, but it was instead decided to hide them behind Shibden's wooden lining.

There they remained until John's death in 1933, when they were discovered and donated to Halifax's library. Until then, reluctant Burll decided it was an honor to give them details of the code, adding that his copy would be "burned."

An early stage by Gentleman Jack, starring Suranne Jones, which is about Anne Lister's life.

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An early stage by Gentleman Jack, starring Suranne Jones, which is about Anne Lister's life.

One or two earlier scientists had decoded several passages, but I was the first to deal with them all. This meant collecting 50 pages each weekend, copying the characters in letters, and then – since there were no punctuation marks – making the letters in words and words in the sense. It took five years, but I could not stop. I was too intrigued.

Lister was remarkable for her time in so many ways. She manages family property as a tough businessman; travels to Paris where he creates his own dissection laboratory to better understand human anatomy; loved to travel and socialize – but above all, it was Casanova's fascination with other women.

The first volume I started with presented Mariana Bellcombe, a young woman with whom Lister shares a passionate relationship.

When Lister writes that Mariana has suggested they have a "kiss", the word is used in both French and jargon for sex. She then described how they sat on the floor and took off their drawers before … Well, Lister is never less candid about detailing what she liked.

Unfortunately, Mariana broke Lister's heart by marrying an older man for her money; I think she never invested another woman in the same way.

Not that their love ended with the altar. At the beginning of the 18th century, recruitment was routinely accompanied by female companions, so I enjoyed reading that Lister joined the honey pair in 1816. Maybe to cure her heart, she also seduced Mariana's sister, who also seduced herself during the trip.

Magazines give the impression of a woman with a well-practiced seduction technique, although her preferred chat line is rather sloping. When she met a woman who was interested in her, she would ask, "Did you read Juvental's sixth satire?" – a written letter that tells of two sisters who "make each other like horses".

If the answer was yes, she would immediately know she had a chance.

He would start the offensive charm and then delicately get a charming kiss. At that time, women could spend a lot of time together without causing suspicion. The ideal of romantic friendship allows them to hold their hands and even share beds.

Lister was never a predator, and would not lie down with an unwanted partner. He loved mature women at the end of the 20s and 30s, at least equal rank – she had ever promised never to seduce a servant – and could juggle several lovers at once, though she sometimes feared she could not to abstain.

She could not understand her longing for women – "No outside formation explains it," she writes, "it's all in my mind," but she did not care about men. Neither did she, despite the wearing of the men's garment, nicknamed Gentleman Jack, wanted to change her gender. One of her lovers asked if she would have preferred to be raised as a son, but Lister did not agree. "I could not be in your boudoir," she said.

Lister finally settled with an adjacent heir named Anne Walker.

They considered themselves married after having parted in the Holy Trinity Church in York in 1834. Lister's indiscriminate days were behind her, but unfortunately she died six years later, at age 49.

Was her sexuality a secret at the time? The matrons in Halifax's intelligent tea tables wanted their daughters not to be alone with her. One woman told her: "Nature is a strange freak when she did."

There are assumptions that Charlotte Bronte, whose sister Emily lived near Shibby Hall as a governess, included Lister in her Shirley novel.

Would you think I would write about her today? As I once said to my aunt, "I want a name for the world. Her wish was given.


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