"Female Fortune is the book which inspired Sally Wainwright to write Gentleman Jack, now a major drama series for the BBC and HBO. Lesbian landowner Anne Lister inherited Shibden Hall in 1826. She was an impressive scholar, fearless traveller and successful businesswoman, even developing her own coalmines. Her extraordinary diaries, running to 4–5 million words, were partly written in her own secret code and recorded her love affairs with startling candour. The diaries were included on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register in 2011. Jill Liddington’s classic edition of the diaries tells the story of how Anne Lister wooed and seduced neighbouring heiress Ann Walker, who moved in to live with Anne and her family in 1834. Politically active, Anne Lister door-stepped her tenants at the 1835 Election to vote Tory. And socially very ambitious, she employed architects to redesign both the Hall and the estate. Yet Ann Walker had an inconvenient number of local relatives, suspicious of exactly how Anne Lister could pay for all her grand improvements. Tensions grew to a melodramatic crescendo when news reached Shibden of the pair being burnt in effigy. This 2022 edition includes a fascinating Afterword on the recent discovery of Ann Walker’s own diary. Female Fortune is essential reading for those who watched Gentleman Jack and want to know more about the extraordinary woman that was Anne Lister.
Anne Lister returned to Shibden, and her relationship with Ann Walker was reignited. By February 1834, their ‘marriage’ did seem settled. Rings were symbolically exchanged; and Anne wrote in code of Ann’s ‘being under no authority but mine’. On Easter day, at Goodramgate church in York, ‘our union’ was solemnized by taking the sacrament together. Then, after travelling for three months in France and Switzerland, they returned together to Shibden.
Bouyed up by a loan from Ann, Anne Lister now had a rush of entrepreneurial energy, employing male experts on her estate and consulting them about a water-wheel at Listerwick. With such a burst of economic activity at Shibden, local tongues again wagged about how exactly she was funding it all. This was heightened when their coalmining rivals, the Rawsons, stirred up local opposition. This involved accusations of poisoning a well at Water Lane mill on the industrial edge of Halifax, inherited by Ann Walker. Stories reached Shibden that ‘Mr Rawson set the people on…and the people burnt Ann and me in effigy’. Matters grew even more torrid when Anne Lister was told that Rawson’s men had been burning devil’s dung, to smother her master miner out of the Walker pit.
Anne’s elderly father, Jeremy Lister, grew weaker. Sitting by his death-bed, friction mounted between the two sisters. After he died, it was of course Anne who organized the formal funeral with all its required ceremony. They then visited York, for help from their lawyer in tidying up the complex final details in the wills of both Anne and Ann. Then, within days of their father’s death, Marian Lister departed from Shibden for good. Anne’s focus was on the two wills, rather than on saying goodbye to her irksome sister.
Anne Lister’s cash-flow problems meant that investments on the Shibden estate had to in part rely on Ann Walker’s comparative wealth. But Ann was upset by this and cried. Why should she be expected to cover so much expense for Shibden (like a carriage and male servants’ formal livery)? Anne’s diary might note that ‘the less I pother my head about her the better’; but her account book told a different story, with Anne still dependent on borrowing money from Ann.