'Gentleman Jack' highlights the extraordinary and brave life of Anne Lister - the first modern lesbian of our times

'Gentleman Jack' highlights the extraordinary and brave life of Anne Lister - the first modern lesbian of our times

HBO's lesbian period drama 'Gentleman Jack' starring Suranne Jones and Sophie Rundle is taking television by storm. The limited series follows Jones' Anne Lister, a landowner in the late 19th century England, as she figures out a way to complete her quest to transform her house and business interests, as well as to find herself a wife.

You see, she's a lesbian in a time when they didn't really have a word for one.

It may sound like fantastical fiction, but 'Gentleman Jack' is based on the real-life of one of the most ambitious, brave and intelligent women of our time - the one often deemed as the first modern lesbian, Anne Lister. 

Suranne Jones and Sophie Rundle in HBO's 'Gentleman Jack' (HBO)


Who was Anne Lister? 

Lister, the eldest daughter of Jeremy Lister, an army man from the British 10th Regiment of Foot, and Rebecca Battle, a woman from Welton in East Riding, Yorkshire, was born in Halifax on 3 April 1791.

The Listers had four sons and two daughters, but only Anne and her younger sister, Marian, survived past the age of 20 years. Her two other brothers were John and Samuel, both of whom passed away in their young age.

Anne Lister is known as the first modern lesbian (Wikipedia)


While Lister's inheritance from her father wasn't much, her aunt Anne passed on the historical Shibden Hall to her when she died in 1836. The inheritance allowed her to sustain her lifestyle, and facilitated her in pursuing her aims of being an indiustrialist.

On the show, we see Lister running about asking for rent and exploring coal mining options, something which had started about a decade before Aunt Anne passed away; only after her passing she really sets her eyes on being an industrialist.


Before long, she owned properties in town, shares in the canal and railway industries, mining, and stone quarries. Lister used the income from this varied portfolio to finance her two passions: Shibden Hall and European travel. 

She always wore black, just like Jones on the show, and is said to have had nicknames like Gentleman Jack and Fred. Her lifestyle and tenacity earned her a reputation of being rather masculine. She passed away at the age of 49 of a fever at Koutais in Georgia. Her remains, however, were brought back to the UK by her wife Ann Walker, who lost her mind after her death. 

Ann Walker and Anne Lister: A love story way ahead of its time 

Lister met Walker after she was introduced to her through family friends. Walker was a rich heiress, and at first, all Lister saw was a resource that would help her get Shibden Hall back on its feet. However, fate had other plans. 

The two met in 1832, right around the time Lister had just been through a breakup with her ex-lover Marianna Lawton, a well-to-do lady from a reputable family. According to the show, Lawton eventually got married to a man, breaking Lister's heart. Their real life story is a little blurry.


Who was Anne Lister? The real story behind Gentleman Jack (HBO)


As for Walker, Lister soon realizes that this was the woman who was meant to be her wife and the two take communion together on Easter Sunday just two years after their first meeting. Their wedding is known to be the first lesbian wedding in Britain.

Jones, in an interview, told us, "Her courage to be herself and her authenticity is something that left me in absolute awe of Anne. She absolutely knew who she was even though there was no word for lesbian, no LGBTQIA community, no blueprint for being one or words like gender non-binary. I think to know in 1832, to be so sure of who you are at a time back then, is extraordinary." 


Quite like everything else in her life, Lister wasn't the one to run away from what was to come. The two women actually lived in Shibden Hall as a conjugal couple all the way till Lister died. Her wife's fortunes did uplift Shibden Hall. 

Lister's diaries written in super secret code

Lister documented her life through numerous diaries, recording her sexual encounters and romantic relationships. Her diary is said to contain about four million words. She wrote her journals for over three decades, and one can imagine the details of her life that went into the diaries. It actually began as a way to communicate with her first love back in school, Eliza Raine, the daughter of a rich surgeon in the East India Company. Lister, however, broke her heart after she pursued other girls at the boarding school and it hurt her so much that in despair and frustration, Eliza became a patient at Clifton Asylum. 

Now the many million words in her diaries do seem daunting, what made reading them an even more uphill task was the fact that she didn't have a straighforward handwriting. To top it off, almost one-sixth of the diary is encrypted. She and Eliza had combined Greek alphabet, zodiac, punctuation, and mathematical symbols to leave messages to one another. 




The iconic diaries also contain her thoughts on the weather, social events, national events, and business interests. The majority of her diary deals with her daily life, and not merely her sexuality, and is also said to provide detailed information on social, political, and economic events of the time.

They were eventually deciphered by John Lister, the last person to live in Shibden Hall and his friend Arthur Burrell. At first, he was advised to burn the diaries, but he thankfully chose to hide it behind the walls of Shibden Hall. The diaries are now a part of UNESCO Memory of the World Programme and are credited with changing the direction of UK gender studies and women's history.


If you like 'Gentleman Jack', watch these too

1. 'A Skirt Through History: A Marriage' featuring Julia Ford as Anne Lister, and Sophie Thursfield as Marianna Belcombe.

2. 'The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister', starring Maxine Peake as Lister.

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