High Society Ambition and Heartbreak in Hastings
''Tis well my heart should run no risk. She found it warm and open as a summer's day. She'll leave it closed in wintry mists, and as cold as they'
On 5th November 1831, Anne Lister began settling into a new apartment overlooking the sea at 15 Pelham Crescent in Hastings. Assisted by her 'noodle' of a servant, Cameron, she started by unpacking some of her extensive library of books, among them Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, de la Beches's Geology, Dr Scudamore's Observations on Pulmonary Consumption and Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
It was a rainy, blustery day, and Anne was pleased to discover a comforting piece of Yorkshire Parkin in her packing box. Choosing to ignore the fact that, judging by its label, the cake was intended for her manservant George Playforth, she shared it with Miss Vere Hobart, who along with her servant, Norbury, was busy unpacking her things in the bedroom across the landing. Anne's aristocratic travelling companion was delighted by the sticky Yorkshire delicacy, describing it as 'next to vanilla cake in goodness'.
Vere's approval pleased Anne, who remarked in her diary that Miss Hobart 'spoke as if with some regard for consideration for Shibden'. With the bills for the groceries, servants and the carriage being sorted amicably, Anne commented drily how Vere liked her enough to let her 'pay for, and give her as much as I like.'
It was providence - or 'dame destiny', as Anne sometimes liked to call it - that brought Anne Lister and Vere Hobart to Hastings together in the winter of 1831. Anne's original plan to travel to Spain with another friend, Lady Caroline Duff Gordon, had failed at the last minute, leaving her unsure of her next move. She didn't like the idea of returning to Shibden, where she found living harmoniously with her younger sister Marian - the 'cock of the dunghill' - a challenge.
However, while it was a disappointment not to be going abroad with 'quick, clever and agreeable' Lady Gordon, who had already proven herself a 'woman of the world' and ideal travel companion on a tour of the Pyrenees with Anne in 1829, Anne herself recognised that the aborted travel plan was financially serendipitous. Still to receive her full inheritance of Shibden Hall, Anne had to watch how much she was spending. On top of that, the threat of cholera made the prospect of travelling to Europe, with anyone, less attractive. Anne noted on 20th September 1831 that 'people were in great alarm' over the disease. They included Lady Stuart de Rothesay, a relative of Vere Hobart, who had by now been settled upon as Anne's travelling companion. Concerned that travel would exacerbate Vere's persistent and debilitating cough, Lady Stuart de Rothesay warned Anne that 'to go abroad was madness . . . even to Milan'.
Anne agreed. She was fearful of cholera too. By now, the epidemic had reached the village of Wibsey, only three miles from Shibden and, while nothing could compare to the 'health breathing gales' of the West Yorkshire dales, she conceded that Hastings and the healthy, bracing winds of the south coast could suit her and Vere both.
Anne Lister had been introduced to the Hobarts and Stuart de Rothesays in 1829 by Vere's late aunt, Sibella Maclean. They were important society people; Vere's cousin, Charles Stuart, the husband of Lady Stuart de Rothesay, was ambassador at the British Embassy in Paris, and Vere was the daughter of the Honourable George Hobart, Earl of Buckinghamshire. They had stylish residences dotted around London (in St James' Park, Richmond and Marylebone), as well as the palatial Highcliffe Castle in Dorset. Theirs was a world far removed from draughty Shibden and Anne's own family. But Anne was a skilled social networker. Always ambitious to forge links with the upper echelons of society, she charmed herself into their circle with her charismatic personality - and perhaps a slightly romanticised vision of her ancestral seat.
When Lady Stuart identified Anne as a 'highly respectable person' to accompany her great-niece to Hastings, Anne was more than satisfied with the arrangement. 'Well,' she wrote in her diary, 'I shall have more society with Vere at Hastings, and I had better be with her there than wander about the continent thro' cholera alone. I do the kindness and it suits me well' (21st September 1831).
Doing 'the kindness' was something Anne was already practised in, having acted as a chaperone to Vere during the Stuarts' stay in Paris two years previously. As well as a milestone in Anne's conquest of her new aristocratic friends, it proved significant in her love life: it was during this trip of 1829-1830 that Anne determined to win Vere's heart.
However, Anne's first impressions of Vere were not entirely favourable. On 8th July in 1829, when the two women paid a visit to the Conservatoire des Artes to look at the horology exhibition, Vere had to be persuaded to go in. At twenty-seven years of age, she lacked Anne's natural confidence. She did not like the look of the gathering crowd outside, made up mostly of men. Anne, who had no such qualms about propriety, thought to herself that Vere was 'a goose'. In another diary entry, she branded her a 'noodle'. Later, when comparing her with Mariana Lawton, the on-off lover for whom she still harboured complicated feelings, Anne decided, unkindly, that Vere was simply 'a good humoured fat girl' (30th July 1829).
But as the two women got better acquainted, and Vere became more comfortable in her company, Anne changed her mind. She became 'decidedly attentive' towards Vere, 'playing the agreeable' at every opportunity. She began, slowly, to make Vere aware of the nature of her liking for her, recording in her journal every detail of the flirtation that was developing between them. She wrote that she was allowed to unhook Vere's gown on going to bed (but was not permitted to untie her petticoats), and that Vere played love ballads for her on the piano. When she told Vere that 'she was pretty, had the prettiest mouth I ever saw', she noted that Vere took the compliment very well. Having initially thought that her 'chance would not be great with Miss Hobart', Anne soon reassessed - ''tis now clear she likes me' (Travel journal, 13th-14th OCTOBER 1829).
Vere would go on to describe Anne as 'the most extraordinary person' she had ever met. It is clear that she was increasingly cognisant of Anne's sexuality. When Anne asked why, unlike their mutual friend, Lady Gordon, she was not allowed into Vere's bedroom, Vere's reply was revealing: Lady Gordon would 'not remember what she saw, and you [Anne] would never forget it'. On a separate occasion, Vere told Anne that when Anne happened to touch her, it led to a 'ticklish' feeling she could not quite fathom (Travel journal, 17th OCTOBER 1829). Buoyed by this encouragement, Anne stepped up her efforts to forge a romantic connection with Vere.
Anne told Vere that she was going to construct a special cryptic alphabet, a secret language in which they could write to each other. Sharing her crypt-hand with potential lovers was a technique Anne had used before, and her imagination started to run away with her. 'What will she write to me?' she wondered.
Vere waivered, worried about the attention such a pointedly private correspondence might bring to her friendship with Anne. Noting her concern, Anne reported, 'People might think if she used it she was writing something improper - it would not look well to use it.' Anne nevertheless succeeded in talking Vere 'off her scruples' and into using the secret code (16th OCTOBER 1829).
Anne enjoyed making gifts to Vere. As well as a beautiful hand-embroidered handkerchief with a 'pretty, coloured gothic border' and expensive bottle of eau-de-cologne, there was a bottle of 'golden ink':
Gave her the little bottle of golden ink. She kissed me for it of her own accord. I laughed and said the skies would fall. We all sat in her bedroom, writing journal and accounts. She showed me a line or two of nonsense and asked me to write 'festina lente', which I did.
TRAVEL JOURNAL, 19th OCTOBER 1829
Vere's request for 'more haste, less speed' was a significant acknowledgement of Anne's attentions. What Vere wanted was for Anne to slow down, to moderate her occasionally over-bearing manner towards her. Anne might have anticipated this, having noted in her journal some months before:
I cannot quite make Miss H out - whether she does not like me much, whether I have overdone it with attention - or whether she likes me and does not want to show it - and rather flirts with me. Is the latter possible?
31st JULY 1829
Throughout her stay in Paris, Anne was eager to make a good impression on Lady Stuart de Rothesay and elderly Lady Stuart. She made sure to act with what she felt was the utmost propriety, careful not to raise eyebrows with her eccentricity. It was an approach which yielded mixed results, not least because Anne found it hard to resist acting in a decidedly gentlemanly fashion.
'We get very cozy and good friends,' wrote Anne, after a late night in Lady Stuart de Rothesay's company. 'Talked about women's characters. She very liberal. We quite agreed on this point. She talked to me exactly as she would to a married man, and surely feels quite at ease with me' (30th JULY 1830).
Anne was becoming more relaxed around her new 'high-ton' (i.e., 'posh') friends, as she called them. Three days earlier, conversation between the two women had been more guarded. Anne, not wishing to demonstrate an intellectual prowess above that of someone of superior rank, had given Lady Stuart de Rothesay the last word on the subject of Creationism:
Got onto the first chapter of Genesis. The light created before the sun. She talked some moments of which I, too civil to take any advantage, in spite of her saying the sun was created afterwards. She thought it not necessary to believe it not existing before the creation of our world. There were many suns and systems.
27th JULY 1830
Having already forged connections with leading French scientists, Anne was in a position to treat her friends to some unusual cultural experiences in Paris. Now, at the invitation of the scientist Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, she took Vere and the Stuart de Rothesays to see the inside of a skeleton of a female whale. Lady Stuart de Rothesay, her two young daughters, Charlotte and Louisa, as well as Vere and elderly Lady Stuart, gamely followed Anne up the 'carpeted ladders' to take their seat inside the skeleton, 'in which' wrote Anne, '30 persons can sit' among 'tables and books and newspapers'. When Monsieur Saint-Hilaire had to leave the party temporarily, she took over the lecture with panache. 'All listened with attention,' she said, 'And the thing went off well.'
Vere, it seems, agreed. Anne reported their conversation in her diary: 'Said she, "I do not know whether you will think it a compliment but the children [Louisa and Charlotte] said to me, "We wished Miss Lister would begin again for we understood her much better than Monsieur Hilaire".' Anne gave herself a pat on the back: 'That will do well enough' (10th July 1829).
Those children who had been so captivated by Anne Lister would go on to lead extraordinary adult lives themselves. Charlotte Stuart became Viscountess Canning when she married the son of the former Prime Minister George Canning. By 1842, two years after Anne's death, Charlotte Canning was Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Victoria. She achieved success in her own right as an artist of Indian landscapes.
Charlotte's younger sister Louisa Stuart, who became Marchioness of Waterford, also trained as an artist, under the tutelage of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Her image was said to have inspired some of the Pre-Raphaelite painters. Augustus Hare's 1893 biography, The Story of Two Noble Lives, gives great insight into the characters of the two women, and gives a flavour of the auspicious social circles in which Anne Lister had found herself moving by the 1830s.
Vere was quick to offer Anne unsolicited pointers about how to behave in high society. Anne recorded more than one occasion in Paris when Vere indicated that she felt Anne's inquisitive mind was getting the better of her in the company of people of rank. Vere only wanted Anne to make a good impression. It was not the 'done thing' to have asked Lord Cosmo Gordon to name his 'favourite hero of antiquity'. 'You will puzzle him,' she said. Similarly, when Anne had asked Sir Charles Bagot, a member of the Privy Council who served as British Ambassador to Russia and to the Netherlands, why he 'disliked Petersburgh people' Vere was quick to tell her that such people 'Cannot always answer such leading questions' (18th OCTOBER 1829).
Initially defensive - 'If people express a decided opinion, they subject themselves to a decided question as to why and wherefore' - Anne, who was given to periods of introspection and self-analysis, went on to absorb Vere's remarks about her behaviour. She was aware that she was used to being in a position of control. At Shibden, she took charge of running of her own estate and managing the people who lived and worked on it. There, she behaved in a manner befitting her rank, as landowner and employer of men. She was looked up to. It was becoming clear to her that she would need to learn a new set of behaviours if she was to succeed and be accepted in this social circle:
But, thought I, there is a good hint - never ask a too decided or abrupt question. She little thinks how much I have had to learn - when to talk and when not. I was too new among such society to quite know how to manage for the best. I was anxious not to appear too familiar. My manner wants to be more easy and liante [sociable] without being too much so, but I do not fancy people see thro' the real person. Better think me stupid and reserved and cold than the contrary . . .
I must dress well, and having everything nice, and reading all the works of the day, and studying at the same time - nothing but this to bear me thro'. I must see to about having a carriage. I can then be useful to people and this will do something.
TRAVEL JOURNAL, 18th OCTOBER 1829
Anne was painfully aware of the gulf that existed between her and her monied friends. Vere was somehow under the impression that Anne had an income of £5,000 a year, a piece of misinformation which Anne chose not to correct. 'Oh, if they saw my father and Shibden and knew all' she wrote in her travel journal on 15th October 1829, horrified at the prospect of them discovering her real circumstances.