Hello and welcome!
As a historian and genealogist, I was drawn to the extraordinary wealth of information found in the diaries of Anne Lister of Shibden Hall, Yorkshire. Her diaries, of which there are over 4 million words, contain vast amounts of familial information which through her phenomenal social networking and exceptionally detailed observations, reveal lineages of families that have played central roles in the societal machinations of Yorkshire in the early 19th Century. Lister’s aspirations to elevate her family name from provincial gentry with a humble agrarian and manufacturing (one could argue yeomanry) background is evident in her diary entries and correspondence. She studied and preserved her own lineage meticulously, most of which survives in the Lister family papers in the West Yorkshire Archives. Lister was also interested in the pedigrees of those who she chose to interact with, especially those who were allowed into her inner circle of acquaintances or those women who became her lovers. However this interest in genealogy was not unusual in a time where one’s position in society was predetermined by one’s birth. Complicated hereditary matters of land and wealth often were decided by genealogical relationships to a testator/testatrix, and well documented family lineages helped preserve wealth and thus power dynamics within society. Prior to the beginning of English civil registrations in 1837, private family records and pedigrees were preserved with the utmost care amongst those who had wealth to bequeath.
Anne Lister’s diaries not only introduce us to various Yorkshire families but also to more prominent members of the aristocratic circles which dominated English politics and society during the Georgian era. Her adventurous inquisitive persona instilled in Anne a love of travelling and her diaries read like a Who’s Who from Bath to Baku.
In my opinion, a most important aspect of Anne’s legacy to genealogical study is the recording of information in her diaries of women whose story would have been lost to posterity. Even more important is that Anne’s diaries provide us with an accurate portrayal of the life of a lesbian written by a lesbian. Not since the poetry of Sappho was translated to English in the 17th century has there been a record so vitally important to lesbian history, and one could easily argue that the Sapphic translations, by male academics, are compromised in their authentic portrayal of lesbian life of a woman who lived more than 2,000 years ago. The dearth of lesbian existence in historical records before the 20th century highlights the importance of Anne Lister’s diaries to the ongoing creation of a lesbian history today. Anne’s personal history as a lesbian landowner, academic, adventurer and businesswoman has given researchers a focal point to begin writing modern lesbian history, and through her vast daily diary entries where she detailed her lesbian relationships she has provided us with not just her history but that of other lesbian women at the time.
The origins of genealogy arose from the patriarchal construct of marriage and property rights and the absolute focus on the male heir as the natural recipient of title, privilege and power. The inclusion and refocusing of genealogy on women’s lived lives plays an important part in writing women’s history. It is here that Anne Lister’s diaries come into their own, providing us with the richest tapestry of continuous women’s lived experience in an age where women were largely recorded in genealogy and history as wife, relict, daughter or mother. The historical importance of Anne Lister’s diaries cannot be underestimated. She has not just provided us with a window into the past of lesbian lives, she has given us our own Grand Tour!