The Well-Documented Mental Health Crisis of Ann Walker and Anne Lister
Those of you who have read my previous two blogs for Inspire the Mind, first on “Glass Delusion” and then on the physician Francis Willis, will know already that I am a history enthusiast who studied European history at Wilfrid Laurier University. With the following piece, I once again want to look back at how mental wellbeing was viewed and treated historically, in some parts of the world, particularly in England in the nineteenth-century. I am moving a little further along the timeline of mental health treatment, and focusing on a specific couple (and a specific case) which has caught my fascination.
Ann Walker and Anne Lister were married on March 30th, 1834, at 10:35am, in the Holy Trinity Church in Goodramgate, York. And by “married,” it’s meant they took communion together and considered the union official, though the church and law would not recognize it. History at least acknowledges the pair as the first recorded married lesbian couple in England.
Everything to do with their romance, engagement, and married life was meticulously recorded by Anne Lister, whose diaries remain one of the gems of LGBT history, though their contents also contained the Halifax-born landowner’s trials as well as her personal and professional triumphs. From her diaries, one can follow the well-documented mental health crisis of her partner, the wealthy heiress Ann Walker, who suffered profusely, casting a dark shadow over what should have been an idyllic courtship period.
Lister had been warned by friends that Walker was not the most emotionally sound choice of companion. A string of family deaths had left Walker riddled with anxiety and depression, but that did not deter Lister, whose need for another woman’s company and love for her overrode any concerns or hesitations. She had made up her mind to take Walker in hand, in more than one sense of the word.
In 1832, Lister and Walker made a trip to York, on the pretext of visiting friends and running errands, but the trip’s true purpose was medical.
Walker was examined by Lister’s good friend Dr. Belcombe (who was, notably, the brother of one of Lister’s old loves, Mariana Lawton, born Belcombe). The casual misogyny of the time period can be found in Dr. Belcombe’s diagnosis, which dismissed Walker’s grief and stamped her with the damning label of the ‘hysterical’ woman, one whose condition was worsened rather than alleviated by financial security, according to Anne Chroma’s biography of Lister, Gentleman Jack: “Miss Walker had too much money and too little to do, and had managed to think herself into being ill,” (pg. 151).
As crude as this conclusion was, was Dr. Belcombe onto something? Could Walker have found some relief by following the route of her partner Lister, and throwing herself into architectural projects and a more hands-on approach to managing her estate?
In nineteenth-century England, there was no question of a rich, comfortably settled woman like Walker getting a job. If a woman didn’t have to work, she just didn’t, so Dr. Belcombe didn’t prescribe exertion and a busier schedule for Walker, but rather “tincture of henbane [a medicinal plant],” adding on “the advice that Anne should maintain the ‘upper hand’ by not unduly indulging her patient’s nervous complaints,” (pg. 151). In other words, Lister was to become Walker’s supporter, but not her caretaker. But was she up for the task?
When they returned from York, the news of a friend’s death sent Walker into a downward spiral, one made even more nightmarish by the fact that her friend’s apparently undaunted widower began pressuring her into marriage. Walker’s mental state collapsed, and Lister found herself on-call for her lover’s distresses. The symptoms Walker was experiencing can nowadays be identified as post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsion disorder, agoraphobia, and depression. Walker struggled with hygiene and insomnia especially, and the ever-practical Lister did her best to manage matters. I’ve had bouts of insomnia myself, and I recognize Lister’s tactics to get Walker to sleep: turning off the clock, consuming something hot for comfort (Lister insisted Walker eat gruel), and — as seen in this diary entry describing a particularly challenging night they spent together — reciting a soothing chant:
“Talked and reasoned calmly, then turned, and pretended to sleep. She refused all affection, and I did not press it. She scarcely, I think, closed her eyes until after 3, when I bade her say the Lord’s prayer incessantly until I think she dropped off into a doze for a little while…” (11th January 1833).
Lister soon became exhausted. The near-sleepless nights and Walker’s fast deterioration were wrecking havoc on the women’s relationship as well as their health, and Lister had always prized her own good health. Something drastic had to be done. It was eventually decided by Lister and Walker’s family that a getaway to Scotland was the cure. Walker would go alone. Lister made her own travel plans to go to Denmark.
In Scotland, separated from the stress of her complicated love life, Walker was expected to make a full recovery. And when she returned, she and Lister would decide in which direction their liaison would go.
Shipping mentally distressed relatives off to Ireland and Scotland to recuperate was a popular course of action among the British upper and middle classes in the nineteenth century. It was a kinder plan than arranging a stint in an ‘insane asylum’, and considerably more practical (as long as one had the funds or connections for it).
The picturesque, rural landscapes of both countries tended to have a soothing effect on visitors who arrived ill or overwrought, and the remoteness of the locations made Scotland and Ireland ideal retreats for families who needed to squirrel away an inconvenient relative for a time, away from the prying eyes of their English neighbours.
In the summer of 1812, the philosopher-writer William Godwin sent his depressed teenage daughter Mary Godwin (the future Mary Shelley) to stay with trusted friends in Scotland. By all accounts, the trip revived the young woman’s sunken spirits, emotionally and intellectually. Biographer Charlotte Gordon in her Romantic Outlaws even claims that it was the beauteous and almost savage setting of the Scottish wilderness where Mary experienced her first real awakening as a writer, writing that “it was here, [Mary] said later, that she first began to dream about writing ‘fantastic’ stories,” (pg. 54).
For others, such as with the case of Ann Walker, it was an enforced holiday for an upper-crust patient, undertaken with the underlying purpose of making the sufferer disappear until they were deemed fit to re-enter respectable society. This is what happened to Lady Caroline Lamb, the socialite and later writer who experienced a complete mental breakdown after being rejected by her lover, the poet Lord Byron (who in turn would later develop a more solid — though platonic — relationship with Mary Shelley). Caroline, in 1812, was whisked off to Ireland by her distraught husband and family to recover not only her stability but their own tattered reputation as well. 1812 was an eventful year for therapeutic travel, it seems.
But did it work for Ann Walker, in 1833? Did the Highlands enact their healing magic on her?
On August 8th, Lister received a letter from a relative of Walker’s claiming that the Scottish air and food had helped her physically, but not emotionally. Walker longed for Lister and would have to wait almost a year until she got the secret wedding of her dreams.
I do wish that I could call this a happily ever after, completely. It was for a time, but after Lister’s untimely death in 1840, Walker lost her true love and her rock. She would relapse and fall back once again under the private care of Dr. Belcombe, dying in 1854. The survival of her story is attributed to her wife’s pen, passed down to my own to share. If you are interested in reading more about Anne Lister and Ann Walker, here are some great resources I would recommend:
Clark, Anna (July 1996). “Anne Lister’s Construction of Lesbian Identity.” Journal of the History of Sexuality, University of Texas Press. 7 (1), pgs. 23–50.
Choma, Anne (2019). Forward by Sally Wainwright, executive producer. Gentleman Jack: The Real Anne Lister. Penguin Books.
Gordon, Charlotte (2015). Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley. Random House.
Liddington, Jill (Spring, 1993). “Anne Lister of Shibden Hall, Halifax (1791–1840): Her Diaries and the Historians.” History Workshop, Oxford University Press. 35, pgs. 45–77.
O’Brien, Edna (2009). Byron in Love: A Short Daring Life. W.W. Norton and Company.
Header image taken from Wikicommons. Sophie Rundle (left) and Suranne Jones (right), who portray Ann Walker and Anne Lister in in the BBC One/HBO series Gentleman Jack.