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The 19th Century Lesbian Made for 21st Century Consumption

Jay Brooks, HBO / document courtesy of the Pforzheimer Collection at the New York Public Library

Jeanna Kadlec | Longreads | June 2019 | 12 minutes (3,114 words)

When we call Anne Lister, the 19th century British diarist and adventurer reimagined in HBO’s hit series Gentleman Jack, the “first modern lesbian,” what do we mean, precisely? Critics don’t seem to know. The catchy tagline coined by Lister’s devotees and perpetuated by the show’s marketing is good branding, but makes for a slightly confusing moniker: what is it, exactly, that makes Anne Lister a “modern” lesbian, let alone the first?

The answer goes beyond a casual Wikipedia-esque list of Lister’s propensities and accomplishments that most coverage of the show has thus far relied on. To understand what makes Anne Lister unique, you have to understand how lesbianism and identity were understood in the 1830s — and it’s far too simplistic to say that women with women was simply “unimaginable” for the time, that Lister was completely solitary in her pursuit of as public a commitment as would have been socially acceptable.

Lesbian content was not unfamiliar to 17th, 18th, and 19th century audiences. From lesbian eroticism in pornographic texts such as the psuedonymous Abbé du Prat’s The Venus in the Cloister: or, the Nun in Her Smock, published in 1683, to the trope of a “Female Husband” (which had historical grounding in famous figures like Mary Hamilton) to the romantic friendship of Ladies of Llangollen, who were contemporaries of Lister’s, the idea of women loving (and fucking) women was hardly new, if deeply socially unacceptable. Among women of the upper class with means, Lister was hardly alone in forging her own kind of life. The “first”? No.

Lister was ahead of her time, but not in the obvious way: not because of her desire, or even her willingness to throw off norms. Rather, her desire to live what we would identify as an “out” life (or, as “out” a life as possible) was informed by a distinctly Enlightenment-informed conception of her individuality and her psychosexual identity that would have been more at home in 2019 than 1839. In Lister’s time, lesbian wasn’t the distinct identity category it would later become. Lister’s prescient insistence on a cohesion between her public and private personas — an insistence on her sexuality as a vital component of her identity — was remarkable. Thanks to her diaries, we also have unprecedented access to how she herself thought of her identity and sexuality, as well as an explicit record of sexual activity. Ultimately, this means that Lister is a historical figure made for 21st century consumption, onto whose life we can easily project (if anachronistically) ideas like that of the closet and the difficulty of living an “out” life in Regency England.
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