28 June 2018
Anne Lister was a wealthy Yorkshire heiress, a world traveller and an out lesbian during the Regency era – a time when it was difficult simply to be female. She wrote her diary in code derived from Ancient Greek, including details of her liaisons with women. Liberated by her money, she remained unmarried, opened a colliery and chose to dress all in black. Some locals referred to her as Gentleman Jack and sent her poison pen letters, but this did not dissuade her from living mostly as she pleased.
This Autumn we publish Gentleman Jack, the first substantial biography of Lister by Angela Steidele, combining excerpts of Lister’s own diaries with Steidele’s erudite and lively commentary. And, because it’s Pride month, we’re sharing an exclusive extract below. You’re welcome.
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Anne Lister was fourteen or fifteen when she fell in love for the first time. She and Eliza Raine were the same age and in the same class at Manor House School in York. They were both different to the other girls. Eliza had been born in Madras and had dark skin and black hair. Anne wore threadbare clothing and was subject to a lot of staring and quizzing for being an original. Care despised on my part! She wanted to learn more than befitted girls, and was called the Solomon of the school…
…For Anne and the other schoolgirls, Eliza may have been the first person they ever saw from another part of the world. Eliza’s father William Raine had been head surgeon at a hospital in Madras on the southeast coast of India, now Chennai. He and an Indian woman – her name is not documented – had two daughters, Jane and Eliza. Both girls were christened and considered illegitimate but British. They spoke Tamil with their mother and the servants, English with their father and his friends. The latter included William Raine’s colleague William Duffin. He had his wife did not have children and grew very fond of the Raine girls. In 1797, Duffin made Raine his successor as chief medical officer in Madras and returned home to York. When William Raine died only three years later, William Duffin was executor of his will and brought Eliza and Jane to York. The girls both attended Manor School, with Eliza boarding while Jane moved in with the Duffins at 58 Micklegate. Each of the girls had £4,000 in a London bank account. This capital, which generated enough interest to live on, was to go to them on their marriage or upon reaching the age of twenty-one. Some might have considered them good catches financially – but as illegitimate ‘half-castes’, they were not accepted by society.
Anne was besotted with Eliza’s beauty; thirty years and countless lovers later, she still called her the most beautiful girl I ever saw. Anne helped Eliza, who preferred French and drawing, with mathematics. Perhaps it was mere coincidence that the two of them were put in the same room. Or perhaps the staff wanted to set apart two girls who did not really fit in at the genteel boarding school. Whatever the case, Anne and Eliza came to enjoy the isolation of their room. My conduct & feelings being surely natural to me inasmuch as they were not taught, not fictitious but instinctive.20 I had always had the same turn from infancy […]. I had never varied & no effort on my part had been able to counteract it.21
Eliza and Anne swore to stay together forever. They planned to live together as soon as Eliza came into her inheritance in six years’ time. The girls exchanged rings to seal their promise. They were reluctant to be parted in the holidays, the two of them staying with Anne’s parents in a rented house in Halifax – Skelfler is not the neat place that it used to be.By this time, Jeremy had left the army. Eliza was given a friendly welcome by Anne’s family. Like at Manor School, Anne and Eliza shared a room and a bed at the Listers’ house, not only for practical reasons. Obsessed with virginity, early 19th-century society thought girls were best protected from male seduction by a close female friend, who would engage their heart and occupy their bed. This parental panic granted girls and women like Anne Lister and Eliza Raine a great many liberties.
After spending the summer holidays together, only Eliza returned to York to Manor School. Anne Lister is said to have been expelled, although there is no evidence of this. Perhaps Aunt Anne could no longer pay the fees for her niece? Until they could meet again, the girls agreed to write regular letters. To make sure every letter arrived and did not fall into the wrong hands, Anne kept a record of their correspondence. This list was the beginning of her diary.
Monday August 11 Eliza left us. Had a letter from her on Wednesday morning by Mr Ratcliffe.
Wrote to her on Thursday 14th by Mr Lund.
Wrote to her again on Sunday 17th – put into the Post Office at Leeds on the Monday following – that Evening the 18th had a parcel from her – Music, Letter & Lavender.23
Without Eliza, Anne consoled herself with her favourite brother Samuel over the daily disagreeables that forever beset our unfortunate family. Anne loved to pit herself against Sam, two years her junior, in ‘masculine’ arts: chess, fencing with wooden swords or translating from Latin. She would always win.