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!
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