HWO’s Radical Books series shares subversive, seminal, and seismic texts that have shaped understandings of radical history, provoked controversy in their time, or sparked social change.
‘My manners are certainly peculiar – not at all masculine, but rather softly gentleman-like. I know how to please girls.’
It is a strange choice, a book whose original author surely never dreamed of publication. But Virago’s publication of extracts from the enormous, coded diary of Anne Lister really did change the world. The American edition referred to it as a Rosetta Stone of lesbian history: it gave us a past we didn’t know we had.
Lister was a Yorkshire gentlewoman, landowner, mine-owner, and traveller of the late eighteenth century. She had several long relationships with women, even slipping a ring onto the finger of one of them in church. Her neighbours called her Gentleman Jack; her lover called her Fred. She left approximately four million words of diaries, some in code, first translated by one of her descendants, who was advised to burn them when their explicit content was clear. He hid them behind a panel in her home, Shibden Hall in Halifax, and eventually they reached the public realm.
Lister’s diaries emerged onto the women’s publishing scene in England at a time when Lilian Faderman’s Forsaking the Love of Men seemed to have had the last word on lesbian history. Female friendship was celebrated and eroticised; cross-dressers provided another model. Yet lesbian desire, we were told, was only visible in the modern age, or at the very least it was indescribable and left no evidence. Our best hope was not to assume that the past was heterosexual, and to dream a better history through historical fictions like Patience and Sarah (1969). But Lister offered an entirely different language. She spoke in the tongue of modern desire, articulating flirtation, lust, frustration, rage, disappointment. She quoted the classics at women she desired until they revealed whether or not they understood her; she ‘grobbled’ under ladies’ skirts; she tallied up her orgasms and planned her pursuits.
Lister’s sexual world may have seemed like a foreshadowing of modern sexual relations. But in fact she spoke from a longer past, an early modern world in which urgent desire was understood to be part of femininity, where women could not conceive without orgasm and where midwives and travellers shared stories of foreign women whose extra-large clitorises enabled them to play the man. Through the work of Valerie Traub, Emma Donahue and others, the resonance of that world for lesbian history has been made beautifully clear. But I still go back to Lister for blunt evidence that in 1800 queer women knew what they wanted and how to get it.
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