How the real-life Gentleman Jack was far racier than anything you see on TV!
Two hundred years later, Lister’s extraordinary story has captivated the nation thanks to Gentleman Jack, the hit Sunday night BBC drama starring Suranne Jones as a fearless 19th Century Yorkshire landowner with an unapologetically racy romantic life.
So popular is the show – 5.6 million viewers tuned into the first episode – that the BBC immediately commissioned a second series.
Anne Lister was certainly a striking figure, especially for a woman of her time. Not only was she a hard-bitten industrialist, she was also a student of anatomy, enthusiastic explorer and prolific diarist.
As viewers have discovered, she was also ‘the first modern lesbian’, a woman unafraid to embrace her sexual orientation decades before her lifestyle would be accepted by society.
Dressed in sharply tailored black outfits crowned with a black silk top hat, Lister was dubbed ‘Gentleman Jack’ by locals in her home town of Halifax, West Yorkshire, for her appearance, confident stride – and the sexuality they guessed, even if they did not understand it.
As a local newspaper article from shortly after her death stated: ‘Miss Lister’s masculine singularities of character are still remembered.’
Sally Wainwright, the creator of the TV series and the writer of other hit shows including Happy Valley, describes her as ‘one of the most exuberant, thrilling and brilliant women in British history’.
Yet, if it hadn’t been for the dogged curiosity of another Halifax resident a century and a half after Lister’s death, her remarkable story might never have been told.
It was author and historian Helena Whitbread who first brought the surprising truth about Lister’s life to public attention, but only after she had waded through more than four million words and 6,600 pages of Lister’s 26-volume diary.
The vast quantity of material was not the only problem. Key sections in Lister’s diaries were written in a fiendishly complex code, or ‘crypt’, a mixture of Greek, Latin, mathematical symbols and the zodiac, and it took Whitbread five painstaking years to decode them.
What emerged was a tale of sexual conquest so extraordinary, some thought the journals were a hoax when they were published.
The diaries tell of Lister’s life as mistress of Shibden Hall, an ancient manor house outside Halifax, her successful wrangles with local businessmen over the price of her coal, and her journeys to France and Russia.
They describe bitter rows with her sister Marian and reveal her passion for classic literature.
But the memoirs also record, in unsparing detail, Lister’s romantic exploits with the women she seduced, including descriptions of orgasms, sexually transmitted diseases and sex toys which are explicit even by today’s standards – and a great deal more graphic than anything contained in the BBC adaptation.
Her more modest accounts of seduction, for example, include an encounter with a woman called Maria Barlow, in which she writes: ‘I had kissed and pressed Mrs Barlow on my knee till I had a complete fit of passion. My knees and thighs shook, my breathing and everything told her what was the matter.
‘Then [I] made several gentle efforts to put my hand up her petticoats which, however, she prevented. But she so crossed her legs & leaned against me that I put my hand over & grubbled [groped] her on the outside of her petticoats till she was evidently a little excited.’
Whitbread has devoted almost four decades to Lister, publishing two volumes of the diaries (No Priest But Love and The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister) and is she now working on a soon- to-be-released biography.
Although she takes the credit for bringing the scandalous exploits to public attention, Whitbread was by no means the first person to crack the secret code that hid them.
Lister’s diaries had already been read in full by a descendant, John Lister, in the mid-1890s. When, however, he realised the truth about his forebear, he feared his own homosexuality might be discovered were the diaries to be made public and so he decided to hide all 26 volumes in the wood panelling at Shibden Hall. There they remained until 1933, when they were discovered, along with the code, and donated to Halifax Library. And that is where Whitbread found them in 1983, as she explains in her first interview since the TV drama began.
Hoping to pursue a career as a writer, she had asked the library for information about Lister, whose home she had visited as a child.
‘The archivist asked if I knew she’d kept a journal and showed it to me,’ she recalls. ‘The code looked very difficult, but I wanted to find out what this woman, who lived 200 years before me in my own home town, had to conceal.’
What Lister was hiding – as viewers of Gentleman Jack now know – was the true nature of her friendships with a number of women, including Ann Walker, a wealthy heiress.
The shy Walker, played by Sophie Rundle, is seen being swept along by Lister’s magnetism, despite being warned the landowner ‘cannot be trusted in the company of other women’.
Suranne Jones’s impish smiles to camera (she frequently addresses the audience, drawing comparisons with Phoebe Waller-Bridge in the award-winning Fleabag) leave us in no doubt she intends to succeed in her mission. And with the pair taking a trip to the Lake District together, their relationship seems likely to escalate in tonight’s episode.
As Whitbread discovered, Walker was far from the first woman to fall under Lister’s spell. Indeed, her first recorded romance took place when she was just 15 and attending the Manor House School in York.
Lister’s diaries begin that year, and describe an intense relationship with a girl called Eliza Raine, who shared her attic bedroom. It was not uncommon for young women to share a bed at that time, so the affair would have caused no suspicion. Another romance followed when she was 19.
Whitbread began her transcription part-way through the diaries when Lister was 26, in 1817, and soon discovered her extraordinary secret.
‘I began to pick up clues, but at first they were a little opaque,’ she says. ‘I realised she was extremely fond of a married woman named Mariana Lawton.
‘In the first passage which confirmed my suspicions about what was happening, Anne described getting into bed with Mariana and the pair enjoying a good “kiss”, which I realised was a euphemism for sex.’
In Gentleman Jack, Mariana is seen visiting Lister and sharing her bed, despite being married. Their affair lasted for 17 years, although Mariana’s marriage initially devastated Lister.
‘Anne was heartbroken, but I was amused to find that she went on Mariana’s honeymoon with her and her new husband, and ended up seducing Mariana’s sister, Anne Belcombe,’ says Whitbread. Disaster would follow. Mariana’s husband contracted a venereal disease from a servant and passed it on to Mariana, who in turn passed it to Lister. In graphic detail, she described the symptoms in her diary and would remain infected until her death.
The first episode of the BBC drama begins in 1832 immediately after Lister’s humiliation at her failure to win the heart of another young, aristocratic woman.
Aged 41, Lister had officially inherited Shibden Hall following the death of her uncle James.
She would not get full financial control until both her father and beloved Aunt Anne died in 1836, but Shibden provided her with an income, thanks to the labour and rent of her tenants, and it ensured her the freedom to pursue the lifestyle she wanted. Formidably intelligent, she proved a capable manager of the family estate, establishing two collieries on the land.
Lister was fascinated by many subjects, including climate, Greek mythology and mountaineering. In Paris, unable to attend university because she was a woman, she attended lectures on anatomy. ‘She rented a small attic room on the Left Bank and got a young medical student to bring her specimens from the local hospital, including a woman’s head, so that she could dissect them,’ says Whitbread.
‘She was so positive and full of energy – there was nothing she couldn’t do if she set her mind to it. She was extremely charismatic.’
Her lesbianism, if not quite an open secret, seems to have been known by her Aunt Anne, among others.
When courting women, Lister would drop hints to see if the objects of her attraction were open to the idea of a same-sex romance by enquiring: ‘Have you read the sixth Satire Of Juvenal?’ referring to a piece of writing about a pair of sapphic stepsisters.
‘At the time, the idea of romantic friendship meant women could spend a great deal of time together,’ says Whitbread. ‘It wasn’t uncommon to have two women walking around with their arms around one another, but it could also extend to sharing a bed and experimenting sexually. If she’d been a man, Anne could never have got into women’s boudoirs.’ The well-to-do matrons in Halifax appear to have realised her sexual orientation and declined to allow their daughters to be alone with her.
One told her that ‘nature was in an odd freak when she made you’.
Deeply religious, Lister assured her partners that their encounters were not immoral. While male homosexuality may have been ‘positively forbidden and singly punished in the Bible’, relationships between women were different.
At the heart of the BBC drama is Lister’s pursuit of Ann Walker, the wealthy heiress who had inherited the vast Lightcliffe estate.
They had met before, when young Ann was ‘a stupid, vulgar girl indeed’, according to Lister’s diaries, but in 1832, Lister became intrigued by her. ‘Thought I, shall I try and make up to her?’ she wrote.
Her intentions were not merely amorous, however. She was also attracted by Ann’s fortune and wanted to make a good match for herself. ‘She definitely manipulated the situation,’ says Whitbread.
‘All her love affairs had been disappointing in the end – either she’d become disenchanted with her lovers or they’d married men. She wanted to find a relationship that would emulate a heterosexual one – a true partnership.’
She went on to ‘marry’ Walker on Easter Sunday 1834 at Holy Trinity Church in York, in what is considered to be the first lesbian marriage in Britain. In reality, the pair simply took communion together, after exchanging rings beforehand.
In the coming episodes, viewers will see the pair growing ever closer and the widening ripples of concern caused within Walker’s family and the community. ‘Ann’s relatives were horrified and tried to dissuade her,’ says Whitbread.
There was the added complication of Walker’s poor health. Mentally she was fragile and she complained of physical pain, often refusing to get out of bed.
The couple remained together until Lister’s death from a fever in 1840, aged 49, during a trip to Kutaisi in the Russian Empire (now Georgia).
Under the terms of Lister’s will, Walker inherited Shibden Hall for the rest of her life, but died in 1854 after a stint in a mental asylum.
Whitbread’s first book about Lister was published in 1988, yet her story remained little known in the wider world until now. The author has been thrilled by the spotlight Gentleman Jack has thrown on Lister. ‘I’ve always thought the world ought to know about her and now it does,’ she says. ‘I’m very impressed with the drama and Suranne Jones’s portrayal of Anne. There are small details in the programme which are fictional, but 90 per cent of what you see is true.’
Jones says she has been deeply affected by the role.
‘After eight months filming in Yorkshire, I came out the other end feeling braver,’ she says. ‘It’s a lesson in courage, in being authentic, having a voice and using it, standing up for yourself. I’m certainly in love with Anne Lister. I can’t say how inspiring she is.’
Lister, a woman who lived life on her own terms and always embraced the attention she drew, would no doubt be delighted.
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