“Gentleman Jack”: 9 Facts About Lesbian Legend Anne Lister to Know Before HBO’s Miniseries

By now, you’ve probably heard the buzz around Sally Wainwright’s BBC/HBO’s Gentleman Jack, an upcoming miniseries about lesbian legend Anne Lister. Yesterday, we finally got a full trailer; peep it for yourself!

Before we go diving in to the lush scenery and corseted scissoring of the miniseries, I thought you might like to get to know the real Miss Lister. Here are nine facts about her fascinating life.


1. Anne Lister’s history is sourced directly from Anne Lister.

Anne Lister is one of the most prolific journalists in recorded history. In 1806, she started keeping a diary on scraps of paper. By the time she died in 1840, she’d written 27 volumes (four million words) about her life. Very, very candid words. She talked about her day-to-day pursuits, her business dealings, her hopes and dreams — and she dedicated about 700,000 of her written words to her lesbianism. She wrote about women she had crushes on, women she fell in love with, her feelings about gender and gender presentation, good sex and bad sex with whom and how, and lots of tips on how to seduce the ladies. Nearly all of the gay stuff Lister wrote in a code she made up, derived from ancient Greek and basic algebra.

2. Anne Lister’s history has been consistently buried.

Anne Lister has become known as the “first modern lesbian” over the last few decades, but we went a very long time not remembering her at all. Her diaries were discovered behind a secret panel at Shibden Hall, the family home she spent a fortune renovating, by her cousin, John Lister. He and his friend, Arthur Burrell, spent years trying to decode the lesbian stuff, and when they finally did it and realized what they’d uncovered, Burrell told Lister to burn the diaries straight to hell. Luckily, Lister didn’t take his buddy’s advice (perhaps because he, too, was rumored to be gay). He just hid the diaries right back where they came from. Lister’s lesbianism hadn’t been a secret in her life. She was shockingly open about it, but the details in her diary were way more erotic than the good Christian people of Yorkshire were ready for in the late 1800s. Even Lister’s remains were lost for over a century. Her tombstone in the parish church in Halifax, West Yorkshire was casually covered by a floor in 1879 and unearthed during a renovation in 2010.

3. She was the original Shane McCutcheon.

Lister loved women. Like looooved women. And most of the women she loved assumed they’d spend their lives with her after she seduced them. When that didn’t pan out, some of them ended up in actual asylums. The first was Eliza Raine, whom Lister shared a room with at boarding school when they were 13. After it became apparent they were doing lesbian stuff, Anne got kicked out of school. They’d made plans to live together as adults, but when Anne was allowed back in school, she started affairs with a few other classmates and left Eliza high and dry. In complete despair, Eliza committed herself at an asylum run by the father of one of Anne’s new lesbian lovers. This was… a pattern. Most of the women Lister seduced were straight, but, in the words of historian Helena Whitbread, who has studied Lister’s diaries for decades, “they were very happy to get back into bed with her.” Her diaries detail going to visit other families in the country, Jane Austen-style, and seducing all of the women in the house before she headed back home.

4. Also kind of the original Jenny Schecter.

Lister is held up as a hero these days, and in may ways, she is! She was also really complicated. After she inherited Shibden Hall from her aunt, she over-taxed her tenants to fund her favorite pursuits: travel and home redesign. She also bought and ran a coal mine with questionable labor practices, even for the time period. Two of her wildest renovations of Shibden Hall were building a giant Gothic tower to show off her Beauty and the Beast-style library and digging tunnels underneath the house so the servants could move around and serve her without her having to hear them making any noise.

5. But when she settled down, she made quite a scene about it.

One of the great loves of Lister’s life was Ann Walker, an heiress who was happy to help fund Lister’s hobbies. They were together for the last eight years of Lister’s life. Once they decided they were in it to win it, they exchanged rings and took communion together at Holy Trinity Church in York on Easter Sunday in 1834, which served as their wedding. There’s a blue plaque, which the UK uses as official historical markers, at the church now, wrapped in a rainbow, celebrating the “gender-nonconforming entrepreneur” who was an “icon for what is interpreted as the site of the first lesbian marriage to be held in Britain.” (This is complicated because Lister also had a marriage ceremony with Mariana Lawton in 1821; however, Lawson ultimately left her to marry a man.)

6. Lister was all right with Jesus.

The church may have spent a lot of time worrying about her soul, but Lister sure didn’t. She was a devout Anglican and wrote about her faith quite a lot in her diaries.Whitbread, who told The Guardian, “She never experienced any difficulty in reconciling her lesbian sexuality with her Christianity. Her firm belief was that as God had endowed her with her sexual nature, it would be wrong to act against it.”

7. She spent a lot of time thinking about gender nonconformity.

Lister was called “Gentleman Jack” by the people in Yorkshire and “Fred” by Marianna Lawton. She wore mostly men’s clothes, in all black, and wrote in her diaries a good bit about how uncomfortable she was with women’s clothing and with talking about things like menstruation. She also didn’t want to be considered “too much a woman” by her lovers. There’s been a lot of speculation about whether or not Lister was trans, but as with most queer historical figures who didn’t have the modern language we have to talk about gender, there’s no real way to know.

8. Anne Lister was more than just a lesbian legend.

Lister is definitely most famous for being so public with her nontraditional gender presentation and love of women, but she was (obviously) a prolific writer and thinker, a revolutionary businessperson, and quite an athlete. She was the first woman to ascend Mount Perdu in the Pyrenees (1830) and Mount Vignemale in France (1838). She also traveled in ways and to places it was frowned upon for women to go at the time.

9. Gentleman Jack isn’t the first TV series about Anne Lister.

The BBC made a miniseries about Gentleman Jack in 2010; it’s called The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister and it stars Maxine Peak, who you’ve most recently known as Sadie in Desiree Akhavan’s The Bisexual. That same year a Sue Perkins-led documentary called Revealing Anne Lister also premiered on BBC Two. Neither of them were particularly critically acclaimed, but for the time, I thought they were both actually pretty good.

Gentleman Jack drops on HBO and BBC on April 22; expect to hear from me about it once it’s underway! 

Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle managing editor who lives in New York City with her partner, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. She's a member of the Television Critics Association, the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer critic. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Heather has written 865 articles for us.

25 Comments

  1. Heather, I love the fact that at the end of this you say “for the time, I thought they were both actually pretty good” about shows that were on in 2010, as though this was an aeon ago.

    Also, some realtalk, is Sally Wainwright queer in any way, or does she just love having lesbians in 99% of her shows?

    This has been bugging me for ages, and I should include it as a postscript to the letter I keep meaning to write her about the plot holes in Last Tango in Halifax stemming from poor research into the workings of wood chopping machines.

    • Hahaha, I know! That was a bananas thing to say; I felt it when I typed it. I feel like there’s some kind of great divide between TV that happened before, like, Netflix and Amazon started making their own high quality shows and everyone was gay becauae no Million Moms were screaming at advertisers. Like was Sue Perkins even out-out when she made that doc??

      • I mean, I consider anyone wearing blazers the way Sue Perkins wears blazers to be out-out, but I think the first time she talked about it publicly was probs when she was on Celebrity Big Brother in the early 2000s.

        It is interesting to think of these TV eras though, in terms of pre and post streaming. There definitely was a slow and steady rise in queerness already, but you’re right in that there did seem to be a boom…maybe with OITNB?

        Anyway, this sounds like a topic that you should write about and we can swoon over.

  2. Lister feels like the real life inspiration for a lot of Sarah Waters heroines. I read a book about her recently and she really was complicated. Quite a fuck boi and I feel awful for some of the women she used and led on, especially Eliza. All in all she was an incredible woman in a lot of ways though and was battling such stifling oppression for so long you can understand some self-involvement. Super excited for the series!

  3. For point 5, “great love” is a stretch. She was in it for Ann Walker’s money, not love, and manipulated and wore her down over months and years until Ann Walker agreed to marry her and to leave her all her money in her will. She talks about it a lot in her diaries. She spent huge amounts of Ann’s money but wasn’t honest with her about how little she had herself. She also helped to isolate Ann from her family. She did not make Ann happy and after Anne Lister died, Ann ended up in an asylum herself for a while, I think the same one as Eliza Raine.

    I was so excited when I first heard about the blue plaque and learned about her but the more I learn the less comfortable I am with us celebrating an abusive marriage just because they were lesbians. I think she was a complicated person and not all bad but she is absolutely not a hero.

  4. Yay for Anne Lister!! I can’t wait to see this adaptation.

    Also, may I recommend the newly translated ‘Gentleman Jack’ biography by Angela Steidele. It was one of my fav books from last year and Angela brings the diaries to life.

    Also, Also, the Blue Plaque has been changed from ‘gender non-conforming’ to ‘Lesbian & Diarist’ as of 28th February! There was a bit of a kerfuffle about the original plaque… https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.pinknews.co.uk/2019/03/01/anne-lister-honoured-replacement-plaque-celebrates-lesbian/amp/

    • Ooh, thanks for the info on the biography! I read a bit about it and it sounds fascinating. I can’t find the book in my library system (grumble), but I’ll keep an eye out for it at local bookshops.

  5. Seeing the Maxine Beeb version is what started my ongoing passionate crush for Maxine Peake. I bought the Gentleman Jack biography as a Xmas present to myself, but still need to read it. I find Lister fascinating, a bit monstrous, but also incredibly ahead of her time (which is easier to do if you are incredibly posh, but still). I look forward to watching this latest version.

  6. ah I think I may need to watch this to let out my decade+ frustration about elizabeth and charlotte in pride and prejudice. I mean COME ON! I didn’t really know about lesbianing at the time but I was like obviously you two could just set up house together and be done with these imbeciles.

  7. Can’t wait for this – Suranne Jones especially.
    Check out the music that’s been chosen for the closing credits – from Yorkshire folk queens (and married gay lady couple) O’Hooley & Tidow –

    😁

  8. Have been following stuff about Anne Lister since I first read about her in 1988 in Helena Whitbread’s first book about her. I have done a couple of short videos about her, the first in 2010 when the gay youth group I was running gave it as a presentation at the British Library as part of LGBT history month: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iHB2XCQDgb8&t=194s

    and the second one in 2014, again as part of LGBT history month: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iTkKc_IapdY

    In the former I give a brief overview of Anne Lister’s life; in the second I point out the resources that have been created – however, there have been several more since then, not least Angela Steidele’s book Gentleman Jack (I feel the need to point out Angela did not do any original research for this but used other research, especially by Helena Whitbread and Jill Liddington – although I am not complaining as she brings together Anne’s lesbian affairs in one book). And, of course, there is a new book coming out that will accompany the series, again called Gentleman Jack, The Life and Times of Anne Lister, by Anne Choma.

    Two points in response to other comments: As far as I know, Sally Wainwright is heterosexual but as she was brought up in Calderdale (where I live) she knew about Anne Lister from an early age.

    Secondly, I am inclined to agree with Emily Danvers – Anne is very interesting in the way she dealt with her sexuality but I feel very angry with her for the way she treated Eliza Raine in particular – using her connections to access women from higher up in the class system then not only dumping her but she was also involved in getting Eliza put in the asylum.

    Most recently I was involved in putting together an Anne Lister walk in York which coincided with the launch of the blue placque (out of interest, one has also just been launched at Shibden Hall). Here is what I put together for the walk (based, of course, on other people’s work):

    Anne Lister York Tour, prepared by Jan Bridget

    Thanks to Helena Whitbread for advice and lighting the Anne Lister fuse with her books I Know My Own Heart, 1988 republished as The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, 2010) and No Priest But Love, 1992.

    Manor House School
    York played a critical role in Anne Lister’s life, beginning when she was about 13 and was sent to Manor House School (Kings Manor, St Leonards).

    One of the best girls’ schools in the area, it occupies the north wing of the King’s Manor, built in the 13th century as a palace belonging to the Abbey, it is now part of York University.

    There were 40 girls and Anne was taught reading, writing, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, geography, history and heraldry, drawing and music. Anne practised the piano and flute every day as well as Latin.

    Eliza Raine
    Anne shared an attic room with Eliza Raine, her first love; 30 years later and after numerous lesbian lovers, Anne Lister still considered Eliza to be the “most beautiful girl I ever saw.”

    Regarding her lesbianism, Anne wrote, “My conduct and feelings being surely natural to me inasmuch as they were not taught, not fictitious but instinctive. I had always had the same turn from infancy […] I had never varied and no effort on my part had been able to counteract it.”

    It was during her relationship with Eliza that Anne devised a code which she shared with Eliza so they could write to each other and to allow Anne to write unfettered in her diary – and this she did, noting every time she made love, each orgasm, even when she masturbated.

    Eliza’s mother was Indian and her father an English surgeon who worked for the East India Company. She and her sister, Jane, came to England after their father, Dr William Raine, died; they were under the guardianship of their father’s friend and colleague, Dr William Duffin.

    For just under a year Anne and Eliza shared the same bedroom but Anne was made to leave the school we are not sure why only that she went back after Eliza had left. Anne and Eliza vowed to stay together for the rest of their lives but Anne went on to have many more lesbian relationships. Anne broke Eliza’s heart!

    The Duffins, Eliza’s guardians, lived at 58 Micklegate. Anne would regularly visit Eliza and the Duffins. Anne got on well with the Duffins, to such an extent that she was able to use their home as her York base and lived there for a period during 1812 whilst she was having an affair with Isabella Norcliffe (Eliza was living in Halifax and it seemed that she might marry Anne’s brother Samuel but he died in an accident).
    As their relationship cooled, Eliza’s mental health declined and she was placed under the care of Dr Belcombe, a York doctor who specialised in mental health. Eliza was declared insane and admitted to the Quaker’s Asylum in Clifton called The Retreat which can be found on Heslington Road, York. From here Eliza moved to an asylum in Osbaldwick, just outside of York, which is now known as Stanley House. She died in 1860 and is buried in the church yard of St Thomas in Osbaldwick, her grave is in the north west corner of the church yard.

    According to Angele Steidele (Gentleman Jack, Regency Landowner, Seducer and Secret Diarist, A Biography of Anne Lister) Eliza was treated badly by her guardian William Duffin and Anne Lister: after Samuel Lister’s death, when it was clear Eliza would not be tied to the Lister family, Eliza tried to get her sister Jane out of an asylum in London where she ended up after she had been cheated on by her husband. Mr Duffin refused to support Eliza in this endeavour and it seems Eliza accused him of hypocrisy as he was having an affair with Miss Marsh, his wife’s companion, behind his wife’s back. William Duffin declared Eliza insane and handed her over to Dr Belcombe (Mariana’s father, more of whom later). Anne sided with William Duffin and condemned Eliza’s attack on him. Eliza remained in the mental asylums and Anne continued to visit her into the 1830’s.

    Isabella (Tib) Norcliffe
    Anne met Isabella Norcliffe through Eliza’s guardians in York. Anne and Isabella were friends and occasional lovers on and off for many years. Tib, as Isabella was known, was a much higher class than Anne and her parents had a town house in Petergate by the minster as well as a mansion Langton Hall near Malton between York and Scarborough.

    Eliza tried to get Anne to return to Halifax but Anne wrote she felt “so happy, so gay and so cheerful in York.” Hardly surprising as she had found her new love and commuted between living at the Duffins in Micklegate and the Norcliffe’s town house at Petergate. When Anne was due to return to her parents in Halifax she persuaded Tib to meet her in York where they spent the day together and went up Clifford’s Tower where they exchanged intimacies! Tib had hoped their on/off relationship might develop into something more permanent but Anne rejected Tib as her life-long partner, partly because she had a drink problem.

    Nevertheless, Tib, introduced Anne to others in her circle, who were mainly of a higher status than Anne. However, she also introduced her to Mariana Belcombe who was the daughter of a York doctor (who ran the asylum) and had been a day-student at the Manor House school.

    Assembly Halls
    Tib’s sister lived on Blake Street opposite the Assembly Halls; Anne would visit both the house and attend events at the Assembly Halls which is now an Italian Restaurant.
    The Assembly Rooms is an 18th century building used originally for high class social gatherings: the army, for example, would hold balls there, it was the big social venue in York. It is a grade II listed building designed by Lord Burlington and is a fine example of the Early Palladian period.

    Mariana Belcombe (Dr Belcombe)
    Anne was besotted by Mariana Belcombe who lived with her family in Minster Yard at the time; and then moved to High Petergate (we cannot trace where). Marianna was the love of Anne’s life; Anne wore an engagement and wedding ring given to her by Marianna; they went through a little ceremony of kissing the rings and swearing their love for one another. However, Mariana ended up marrying the rich Charles Lawton who owned Lawton House and its surrounding estates in Cheshire. Anne was heartbroken: “The time, the manner of her marriage, oh how it broke the magic of my faith forever.”

    They continued an on/off relationship even when Mariana was married but Anne eventually gave up and went to live in Paris where she had another relationship with a young widow, Mrs Maria Barlow. Anne began to mix with French aristocracy and on her return to England visited Mariana at Lawton Hall whom she now saw in a different light, she now seemed dull and provincial.

    Ann Walker (Halifax)
    Anne Lister had several other affairs but continued to look for her lifelong partner. She met a local heiress, Ann Walker. Ann Walker moved into Shibden Hall, Halifax, with Anne Lister. In 1834 the two women took communion together at Holy Trinity Church, Goodramgate.

    Anne Lister died whilst on holiday in Georgia in 1840; Ann Walker had her body embalmed and brought back to Halifax where she is buried in Halifax Minster.
    1. Holy Trinity Church, Goodramgate – where Anne Lister and Ann Walker took communion together, Easter, 1834
    2. Assembly Rooms, Blake Street
    3. Manor School, now King’s Manor
    4. Minster Yard.
    5. (High Petergate)

    The tour could be extended to include the following but would require some form of transport:

    6. 58 Micklegate – where Mr & Mrs Duffin lived – Eliza Raine’s guardians and where Anne often stayed whilst in York.
    7. The Retreat is off Heslington Road (near York Cemetery) where Eliza Raine was sent.
    8. Stanley House, Osbaldwick where Eliza Raine lived (in women’s asylum)
    9. St Thomas’ Osbaldwick, where Eliza Raine is buried.

    By the way, Anne Lister seduced a lot more women than those cited above!

Contribute to the conversation...

You must be logged in to post a comment.