The Exquisite Boredom of Anne Lister's Diaries
4 min read

The Exquisite Boredom of Anne Lister's Diaries

One word that she never euphemized is “penis"

Last year at about this time, I got top surgery, and this year at about this time, I’m in hell, so July is my month for reading the diaries of Anne Lister (1791-1840). The two volumes, edited by Helena Whitbread, were both recently reissued as cheap ebooks — both called The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, with the respective subtitles I Know My Own Heart and No Priest But Love.

They’re perfect reading if you are stuck inside, because they are all about boredom. Anne Lister had a surfeit of restless energy which was only countered by her delight in observing herself. In her diaries, she describes the minutae of her daily life (curled hair, cut hair, new bolts of cloth, new horses), as well as, famously, all the sex she ever had. With this come euphemisms, Anne’s real art form. “Grubbling” is fingering; a “kiss” signifies a good fuck or an orgasm, and both grubbling and kissing are things you might do to your lover’s “queer.” There is also a more serious sex act, one which Anne called “going to Italy together.” Whatever it was, Anne saw it in a consummatory light, and also worried that it would pass on her persistent case of the clap, so it must have been a fairly involved one.

One word that Anne never euphemized is “penis,” as in “Thinking of Mrs. Milne. Fancying I had a penis & was intriguing with her in the downstairs water-closet at Langton before breakfast, to which she would have made no objection.” I’m fascinated by her frank use of the word, which lays bare the fact that her euphemisms weren’t a smokescreen for anyone who broke her infamous codes. Nor did they suggest any shyness about sex. Mostly, to me, they imply that she’s bored, and playing with words to relieve her boredom. Maybe “penis” required no euphemism because this fantasy, since it couldn’t be realized, could never get old.

Boredom is the central emotion of Anne’s life. Oh, I don’t think she often felt bored. She devoted too much of her wild energy to countering it. Anne is breaking in a new horse; she is cutting the feet off of her stockings and stitching on socks instead; she has decided to dress entirely in black; she is going to Paris for the mercury-cure; she is seducing a chain of women, approaching every country house or French hotel as if it were a murder mystery whose solution is to find, not the killer, but the woman who liked women. Once she’s found her, the romance begins — signified by daily reminders that “she likes me certainly,” a slow seduction by degrees, grubbling, kisses, and Italy. (I should say that No Priest But Love, which comprises entries from Anne’s thirties, is more euphemistically adventurous than the earlier-set I Know My Own Heart.)

What thrills me about these books is how familiar the archetypes are. Anne may be popularly called the “first modern lesbian,” but she meets many other examples of modern queer women. There’s the one you meet as a teenager, who treats you horribly within your Iron Maiden of a shared closet. There’s the one who’s just way more into you than you can ever reciprocate. Then there’s the one whose religion keeps her in semi-denial, and the one with whom you have nothing in common except queerness, which is enough to make a lasting bond, but not enough to make it bearable to spend more than a teacup’s worth of time with her.

In short, Anne moves with a recognizable scene. Reading her diaries is like reading Dykes to Watch Out For. She herself is a potent and complex archetype — a restless, ambitious, ultra-dorky butch, whose strong stone tendencies are exacerbated by obvious gender issues, who philanders remorselessly but pines for the imagined woman who will give her everything she wants: money, title, perfect romance. Anne is pretty unconcerned about being outed. Her coalescing goal is to live in a big, transparent, well-lit closet with a lady of somewhat higher station, and as she acquires wealth and power over the course of her life, she starts to reject the women who used to be good enough in favor of — say — a glamorous French smuggler, or the heiress down the road.

(This is probably the part where I confess that I haven’t seen the acclaimed miniseries Gentleman Jack, about Anne’s seduction of her last partner, Ann Walker, who ultimately had to spend seven months hauling Anne’s enbalmed body home from Russia, where she died. I’m sure it’s very good, and I’ll get around to it.)

Anyway, Lister’s diaries are perfect reading if you’re facing a span of time that you need, somehow, desperately, to fill. Nothing too bad happens in them — they stop well before the trip to Russia — and they’re as ideally dull as the best piece of shortbread you’ve ever eaten. Anne is determined to savor her life, even if shortbread is what she is served three meals a day. She will leave you determined to savor her life, too.

She is a wild plant, though; she’s a volunteer tomato. She never gets the space to develop the way she wants to, and despite her many friends, Anne never seems to have found an interlocutor who could let her process all this stuff. Honestly, I suspect that Anne could never have settled for an interlocutor other than herself. The diaries are the work of a woman convinced of her own singular nature, obsessed with refining her life and the company she keeps, with ranging her game pieces for a win. She loves herself, which saves her from misery. But she also isn’t a finely calibrated enough machine to refine things properly, and that keeps her from happiness.

I’m being hard on Anne here, but I love her, and I don’t blame her. The inventor of a machine will never be the one who perfects it, and Anne, surrounded though she was by magnificently queer women, was a dyke sui generis.