BOOK REVIEW / Kiss-by-kiss account of a Sapphic Casanova: 'No Priest but Love' - Anne Lister, Ed. Helena Whitbread: Smith Settle, 13.95 pounds

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The Independent Online
'I FELT her grow warm & she let me grubble and press her tightly with my left hand whilst I held her against the door with the other, all the while putting my tongue in her mouth & kissing her so passionately as to excite her not a little, I am sure.' Sapphic Casanovas are rare birds; those prepared to put their experiences on record even rarer. But Anne Lister, an upper-middle-class Yorkshire heiress born in 1791, was no ordinary person. Promiscuously ardent in her quest for physical satisfaction, yet also devoted for more than 10 years to her one true love, she spent a good portion of her life scrupulously recording the details of her daily round in a minuscule but strikingly confident hand.

Like Pepys, she used a secret code for sexual intimacies, and like him she was prolific: six and a half thousand pages, some four million words, of her journals survive from 1817, when she was 26, to the time of her death, in 1840.

Anne was confident from an early age as to where her sexual orientation lay, if not why. Nature or nurture? She recalled that as a child she was 'a great pickle', who nipped away from her maid and ran out in the evenings - 'saw curious scenes, bad women, etc'. 'It was all nature,' she said to the first of her Parisian lovers. She had 'thought much, studied anatomy, etc' but 'could not find it out, Could not understand myself, It was all an effect of the mind'. The first physical relationship she describes in the diaries was with her room-mate at the boarding school she was sent to at the age of 14. Even then she was a flirt, and made poor Eliza, daughter of a surgeon in the East India Company, ferociously jealous.

Once launched on the northern social circuit, Anne, mannishly handsome, had made a remarkable number of conquests before she met and fell deeply in love with the daughter of a York doctor, Marianna Belcombe. But after a couple of years of bliss (and the odd infidelity), Marianna was married off by her father to a wealthy widower 20 years older than she was. That did not end her affair with Anne, but nine years later the more conventional occupations of charitable work and tatting seem to have had greater attractions than the prospect of spending her own widowhood with her increasingly eccentric girlfriend. Anne wrote to her tempestuously: 'Mary, you have passion like the rest but your caution cheats the world out of its scandal & your courage is weak rather than your principal (sic) strong . . . It was a coward love that dare not brave the storm.'

Fortunately, Anne had the means to make a fresh start: she had been adopted as the heir of a wealthy uncle. She left for Paris in search of romance, and this handsome and well-illustrated volume of her diaries, Helena Whitbread's second selection from the Lister journals, concentrates on her experiences there. Was the widow Barlow on the make, she wonders, or genuinely in love? Should she buy that chic lilac bonnet in the Rue de Rivoli? And how well cared for the foundlings were in the Institution des Enfants Trouves, 'wrapped like little mummies on a gently inclined plane before the fire to quieten them'.

Anne Lister's journals are particularly rich, not only because she put down details of her courtships kiss by kiss, thigh over thigh, but because she had a way with words: breathless excitement, raging jealousy, deep disappointments all spring off the page as vividly as when they were first experienced.

But what makes people spend so long putting their lives down in words? There is ultimately a chilling sense of isolation in these unusually frank records of escapades in Paris and assignations in Buxton Spa. Time and again Anne reveals a calculated carefulness, a ruthless determination to get her own way coupled with a vulnerability that makes her ruin her best chances of happiness. Although she was clearly fortunate in her rheumaticky old aunt's deep affection, and the general respect in which she seems to have been held by other relations and acquaintances, the loneliness at the core of the journals is their lasting flavour. Still, her lively, rackety life, ending like Lady Hester Stanhope's in mad journeys to the East, had its compensations.