The Moss House

Written by Clara Barley
Review by Fiona Alison

In 1832 Yorkshire, Miss Lister, part-owner of Shibden Hall, and Miss Walker, a neighbour and wealthy heiress, strike up a particular friendship, although it seems doubtful Miss Walker knows the extent of Miss Lister’s previous lesbian relationships. Travelling extensively after the love of her life “succumbs” to marriage, Miss Lister has returned to Shibden Hall, commissioning upgrades to the estate to display the family’s importance. She is educated and intelligent with an entrepreneurial and scientific mind. Self-described Miss Walker is pretty, ladylike, shallow, boring, and an expert at melancholy. She has everything to be happy about, except the power to enjoy it. This causes much friction as the friendship wavers between genuine tenderness and frustrated spitefulness.

Miss Lister takes active part in her inheritance, dresses in black, is manly in aspect and seemingly isn’t affected by emotion, even when Halifax society speculates on the illicit goings-on within the Moss House walls and humiliates the women publicly. Miss Walker moves into Shibden Hall, is welcomed by the family, and the two women share their inheritances in a quasi-marital state, extending the house, renewing furnishings and traveling. Readers can hardly miss the similarities to heterosexual marriage.

The bones of this novel come from Anne Lister’s diaries, the explicit parts of which she wrote in code. Neither protagonist is particularly appealing, but they are both very well drawn and arc convincingly through personal growth. Women were forbidden to be alone with a man without a chaperone in the 19th century, but were not hampered by such restrictions amongst themselves, and often indulged in very close friendships and experimentation. The story is bathed in pathos, and there is a poetic slant to the diary-like dual-narrative. The sexual language is explicit, extremely anti-male, and might not suit all readers, but the writing is clear and insightful. A fascinating exploration of 19th-century feminism, lesbianism, and women’s independence.