`Speaking of my oddity ... nature was in an odd freak when she made me'

Female Fortune: Land, Gender and Authority: The Anne Lister Diaries and Other Writings, 1833-36 edited by Jill Liddington, Rivers Oram pounds 30/12.99: She was butch, mistaken for a man, `married' an heiress and ran her own business. Oh, and it was 1835
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Sections from the coded diaries of Anne Lister, the wealthy Halifax landowner who in the early 1800s kept a detailed chronicle of her life and lesbian relationships, were first published in 1988, giving a truly startling insight into women's same-sex relationships in the period. In I Know My Own Heart, and its sequel No Priest But Love, both edited by Helena Whitbread, the voice of this remarkable woman spoke directly to us, with enormous frankness, about a life which could never have been publically recorded.

Now Jill Liddington has returned to the massive Lister writings - her journals run to 27 volumes and nearly four million words - to uncover the events of the years 1833-6 when, in her forties, Anne had settled into the Shibden Hall estate inherited from her uncle. Anne not only set out to carve a public role for herself in the very masculine worlds of business and politics, but also set up home with a neighbouring heiress, Ann Walker, in what both women considered a formal marriage.

The great gift of these diaries is their first-person testimony of the experience of butch lesbian identity in the early 19th-century. Visibly different from her heterosexual peers - she was considered masculine and was sometimes mistaken for a man - Anne could not avoid being publically marked out as different from an early age. Yet despite the loneliness of her "singularity", not once in the edited diaries does she express self-doubt or guilt about her attraction to other women. She explained herself as having an "oddity" but as she believed this was created by God, she saw no conflict with her Christian beliefs. At least some of her Halifax neighbours seem to have shared her view: "Speaking of my oddity, Mrs Priestley said she always told people I was natural, but she thought nature was in an odd freak when she made me ..."

Dynamic, charming and unusually well educated, in her twenties and thirties Anne negotiated a number of sexual relationships, carefully concealed, within her circle of women friends. The most intense of these was with Mariana Belcombe, who broke Anne's heart by opting for a marriage of convenience in the middle of their affair. ("She sold her person to another for a carriage & a jointure," mourned Anne.) At the time of the period covered in Female Fortune, Anne had decided she had as much right as anyone to settle with a life partner and, like any prudent individual planning a sensible match, chose someone she both liked and knew to have money. In the autumn of 1832 she set about courting Ann Walker of neighbouring Crow Nest, and despite some religious guilt on Ann's part, they soon became lovers: "she offered not the least sign of resistance ... she had always a fancy for me."

Rings were exchanged and Ann came to live at Shibden Hall, ignoring strong disapproval from her relatives. Even more controversially, the two women set about changing their wills, so that each would have a life estate in the other's property.

A lesbian "marriage" in the early 19th century seems at first incomprehensible. How could Anne have carried this off in a conservative provincial town like Halifax, even as a privileged, wealthy woman? The answer seems to lie in the vagueness which in polite society surrounded the sexual dimension to Anne's relationships with women. Even her family and friends are "all in a mist about it" she writes at one point. While lesbians were recognised - Anne was occasionally harassed on the street, and her passionate friendships were a subject of gossip and unease - so long as she was rigorously discreet nothing could be proved against her, since it was within the boundaries of social acceptability to have close "romantic friendships" with other women. After all, the Ladies of Llangollen, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, had managed 50 years as bedfellows in the name of spiritual friendship. Lister, who records her visit to their home in 1822, clearly reckoned she could do it too. We shouldn't underestimate the courage this took, since though no there was no British law forbidding sex between women, the penalties could include social ostracism, accusations of insanity or jail under related charges. The relationship with Ann Walker was not Anne's happiest or most equal, though. Ann had a history of depression and living in a relationship which required secrecy can't have helped. Anne was frequently impatient with her low spirits and they quarrelled over money, as Anne believed herself entitled her to large sums from her "wife's" income.

Still, the diary records some contentment, with a sex life recounted in Anne's usual blunt fashion as hot to "washing-tub wetness", although as the relationship wore on it became less satisfactory. "No kiss ... she always too tired," Anne observes disconsolately at one point, proving that some things stay pretty much the same.

Because of the rarity of information about lesbian relationships in the period it's tempting to focus only on Anne's "marriage", but Jill Liddington's excellent introduction rightly points out that we should see this in the context of her other achievements in pushing the boundaries of a woman's role. Energetically managing the Shibden estate, Anne developed her coal-mining business against the competition of rival operations; she bought new land to expand her opportunities; she was an active share- holder in the canals during a time of strong challenge from the railroads. A die-hard Tory despite her radical private life, she supported the "Blue" candidate in the notoriously violent "window-smashing" Halifax parliamentary election of 1835, doorstepping her estate tenants to bully them into voting her way. This sortie into politics provoked the nastiest jibe at Anne's lesbianism, as a hoax marriage announcement placed in the local newspapers pointed the finger unmistakably at the true nature of her relationship with Ann Walker. Anne summoned all her hauteur to dismiss it as an insignificant joke and was not intimidated. The Anne Lister diaries provide a truly remarkable record of just how far a determined, independently wealthy woman in the early years of the last century could go in living her life as she wished; they're also a unique social document on how lesbians were perceived, partially tolerated and powerfully policed during the period.

Congratulations and commiserations to Jill Liddington for her long labour in near-impenetrable archives to bring out this latest volume.