Anne Lister by Edie Campbell
Illustration by Sam Russell Walker
When I asked Edie for a bio she replied, ‘Lol I don’t know what I am.’ So let’s just say, Edie Campbell is a Supermodel, equestrian champion, activist for improved models’ rights in the fashion industry, and ambassador for The Reading Agency literacy charity. Quite impressive then…
Often, I find myself in corners of the internet examining things that do not add to the rich fabric of my life. Mostly, other people’s plastic surgery. But sometimes, I find myself floating down a vortex into something good, something useful. Something that reminds me to stop looking @celebface. I don't remember the route I took that led me to obscure 18th century lesbians. I suppose sometimes people just appear, from across time, to have a chat with you.
Anne Lister is someone I return to, when things get muddled and life requires a courage that I cannot muster from within. Anne was born in 1791, the heiress to a large estate in Yorkshire. She forced herself back into the world in the 1970s, when her diaries were discovered behind a panel at her home, Shibden Hall. They have have been described as “the Dead Sea scrolls of lesbian history”. Written in an invented code – a combination of algebra and Greek – they are the earliest known firsthand account of lesbianism, extending to many millions of words, chronicling every one of her conquests and rejections, every snog, every shag and every orgasm.
As I squirrelled around on the internet, Anne appeared through the multiple tabs of Google Chrome. Some people are irrepressible.
Anne had numerous relationships with women. She was thirteen when she met her first girlfriend, Eliza Raine, at school. They shared the attic bedroom. Anne had been sent there because she was disruptive; Eliza because she was half Indian. In their bedroom, they exchanged rings and considered themselves married. The two girls were separated when their relationship came under suspicion. Poor Eliza was driven mad as Anne became involved with other women, and she was eventually committed to a Quaker insane asylum, where she remained until the day she died.
Anne married again in 1834 – in a more official way this time – when she and her long-time lover Ann Walker took communion together at the altar of Holy Trinity Church in York. That church had always been Anne Lister’s favourite pick up joint, examining the good ladies of the Yorkshire aristocracy across the pews. A rainbow plaque now commemorates Holy Trinity as the site of the first same-sex marriage. Some things just take a while, I suppose.
There was, at the time, no concept of lesbianism. Female homosexuality did not exist, in consciousness or in language. But it existed in Anne Lister’s mind, and in her body. And this is what is most compelling about the person that emerges: she could have hidden, and lived with her wife under the vague haze of ‘female companionship’. But instead she invented an entirely new identity; and carved out a space to live in the world as a visible and public lesbian.
Anne expanded the large estate she had inherited, using her wife’s wealth to take on the coal mining industry by opening her own collieries and naming the seams after her lovers. She wore men’s clothes and invaded male spaces, competing with them for power and wealth.
In response, her competitors burnt effigies of the two Annes.
Anne had nothing to work with: no role models to call on, no counter culture, and – god forbid – no Queer Bible. But she completely refused to deny her desires or her otherness. She did not shrink from what she was; she celebrated it. Even though that thing-that-she-was was inconceivable to everyone else. Anne Lister invented a lifestyle to suit herself. She took what was unimaginable to most people, and forced them to see it.
Anne always demanded attention. And something demands that we pay attention even now. Her sense of self rings clearly, her voice so assured. I think that’s why I’m still hearing it, still listening to her now, centuries later.
Sam Russell Walker is an Illustrator based in Glasgow. He graduated from the Glasgow School of Art in 2015 and his work is inspired by film, pop culture, the human form, plants and fashion. His process is also heavily influenced by the act of mark making and creating textures through this process.