This post is by Library Research Support Advisor Kirstine McDermid, Dr Jill Liddington and Dr Kit Heyam.
Lesbian landowner Anne Lister (1791-1840) was a scholar, traveller and businesswoman who inherited the Shibden Hall estate near Halifax in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Anne chronicled her romantic affairs with women in her diaries, which are held in the West Yorkshire Archive Service. These extraordinary journals run to four million words, with entries detailing her clandestine relationships with other women written in own secret code. These private diary entries burst with candid depictions of her life as a romantic and sexual lover of women. Due to Anne Lister’s resolute self-acceptance, she is often regarded as the ‘first modern lesbian’.
Dr Jill Liddington, Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Leeds, opened up the Anne Lister diaries to scholarly scrutiny. Her first book, Presenting the Past (Pennine Pens 1994, 2010) digs deep into the archives to examine how Anne has been interpreted and presented by successive generations of editors and historians. In critically appraising these different portraits, Jill Liddington tries to come closer to the real Anne Lister.
Later, in Nature’s Domain (Pennine Pens 2003), Jill Liddington tracks Anne Lister’s life over nine intensive months, April to December 1832. Here is presented Anne’s determined courtship of neighbouring heiress Ann Walker. The seduction is detailed candidly in Anne’s journals, largely of course in code.
Finally, in Female Fortune (Rivers Oram 1998), her major work on Anne Lister, Jill Liddington presents Anne Lister over a longer and particularly rich period: December 1833 to May 1836. Through her affair with wealthy Ann Walker, Anne Lister contrived to consolidate these two neighbouring estates. She develops the coal deposits on their land, managing these business ventures with considerable flair and energy. Yet it is the diary entry about Anne Lister’s ‘marriage’ to wealthy Anne Walker at a small York church in April 1834 that most startles and amazes contemporary readers.
Jill Liddington adds:
‘Readers of Female Fortune murmur to themselves: “She wasn’t very nice, was she?” Then they wonder: “How did she get away with it all?” Some recent commenters suggest Anne Lister was the ‘first modern lesbian’. I wonder. Largely through inheriting Shibden’s ancient acres, she was in fact a staunch traditionalist. A classical scholar, her religious observance remained traditional Anglicanism, and her politics unflinchingly ‘true blue’. Did she in fact ‘get away with it all’ because, as a member of the local landed gentry, she was in fact the “last traditionalist lesbian”?’
Find out more about Jill and her work at http://www.jliddington.org.uk
King Edward II
In December, I was awarded my PhD for a thesis on someone who is a familiar sight in LGBT History Month: King Edward II (1284-1327). My thesis, based in the School of English, explored the development of his reputation over the period 1305-1700. Edward II, who reigned in England from 1307 to 1327, is remembered today primarily for his close relationships with his male favourites, Piers Gaveston (c. 1284-1312) and the two Hugh Despensers (1261-1326 and c. 1286-1326). Edward antagonised his other nobles by giving these three men disproportionate favour, power and influence – and during the four centuries after his death, historians came to the consensus that his relationships with them were sexual and romantic. Over my five years of part-time study at Leeds, I aimed to discover how this consensus was reached.
This might sound like straightforward historical research – so how did I end up in the School of English? To answer that question, we need to look at how Edward became part of what we now call ‘LGBT history’ in the first place. Of course, medieval and early modern people didn’t understand sexual behaviour in the same way as we do now, so it’s not helpful to think of Edward as straightforwardly queer: instead, it’s more accurate to think of him as someone who possibly engaged in behaviour which is now practised by people who identify under the LGBT umbrella.
My research revealed that that Edward was being accused of sexually ‘transgressive’ behaviour during his lifetime. A version of the political poem ‘The Last Kings of England’, written around 1312, compares Edward to a goat. As far as we know, this isn’t because he had horns or a penchant for munching the flowers in the palace garden: in fact, it’s because goats were associated with lustful behaviour. Of course, this isn’t very specific. The writer of ‘The Last Kings of England’ might have been suggesting that Edward was having sex with men, but they also might have been saying he committed adultery, or engaged in some other kind of sexual misconduct. Later writers, in the fifteenth and sixteenth century, were similarly reluctant to spell out what Edward was doing: they accused him of sexual bad behaviour, and claimed that his favourites encouraged that behaviour, but they didn’t join the dots.
But everything changed in the 1590s, with Christopher Marlowe’s play Edward II. Marlowe unambiguously presented Edward and Gaveston as lovers – and, it seems, he paved the way for historians to do the same. After Marlowe, writers of all genres – poetry, plays, political pamphlets and history books – are far more likely to indicate unequivocally that Edward and his favourites were in sexual and romantic relationships. The answer to ‘Why is Edward II part of LGBT history?’, then, turns out to be the same as the answer to ‘Why is this research based in the School of English?’: because the text that had the most influence on Edward’s reputation was not written by a historian, but a playwright.