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The secret diary of Gentleman Jack - Britain's first modern lesbian

Poring over coded diary entries revealing the secrets lesbian affairs of a 19th-century land owner led screenwriter Sally Wainwright to a great discovery.

Between those pages she found a historical character of “almost Shakespearean proportions,” says the Bafta-winning writer.

BBC One's Gentleman Jack, written by Sally Wainwright. Pictured: Anne Lister (SURANNE JONES), Aunt Anne Lister (GEMMA JONES), Marian Lister (GEMMA WHELAN), Jeremy Lister (TIMOTHY WEST) - (C) Lookout Point - Photographer: Jay Brooks
BBC One's Gentleman Jack, written by Sally Wainwright. Pictured: Anne Lister (SURANNE JONES), Aunt Anne Lister (GEMMA JONES), Marian Lister (GEMMA WHELAN), Jeremy Lister (TIMOTHY WEST) - (C) Lookout Point - Photographer: Jay Brooks

Now she has made the complex and mysterious Anne Lister of Shibden Hall the subject of her new BBC1 show Gentleman Jack, starring Suranne Jones in the lead role.

Sally says. “Anne Lister is a gift to a dramatist. She is one of the most exuberant, thrilling and brilliant women in British history.

“Suranne and I were talking about how it is rare these days to have a character of almost Shakespearean proportions.

“These days drama is so much about ordinary people in extraordinary situations, which is brilliant, but it is quite a rare feat to stumble across someone that - although it sounds grand - I feel is a character on a Shakespearean level.

“She has so much about her, she is so complex and so big - I think that is unusual, especially for a female role.”

The writer and director - creator of Last Tango in Halifax, Happy Valley and Scott and Bailey - will discuss discuss bringing this true story of Anne Lister to the screen at the Wimpole History Festival.

BBC One's Gentleman Jack: Anne Lister (SURANNE JONES), Ann Walker (SOPHIE RUNDLE) - (C) Lookout Point/HBO - Photographer: Jay Brooks
BBC One's Gentleman Jack: Anne Lister (SURANNE JONES), Ann Walker (SOPHIE RUNDLE) - (C) Lookout Point/HBO - Photographer: Jay Brooks

Gentleman Jack was the local nickname for Anne Lister, a 19th-century Yorkshire landowner, who has been described as the ‘first modern lesbian’.

Her coded diaries reveal numerous erotic encounters with other women, a secret lesbian marriage and - more than that - an intellectual woman trying to find her way in a man’s world and questioning her traditional gender role.

“The thing that excited me most when I started writing about her is just how clever she was,” says Sally.

“She had a really extraordinary mind, a very inquiring mind, and a great ability to absorb very complex information and use it very quickly. What I found very captivating was her real passion for life and a zest for finding out about the world. She was profoundly interested in everything around her and she was particularly interested in herself and her own sexuality and her gender.”

Every part of Anne’s story is based in historical fact, recorded in the five million words of her diaries that contain the most intimate details of her life, once hidden in a secret code that is now broken. They reveal her as a great traveller and student, who went to Paris to study anatomy so she could understand her own sexuality.

“She went to study anatomy in Paris under Georges Cuvier who was the foremost thinker on the subject pre-Darwin. she approached him and asked him if she could have private tuition. He could see that she was a really intelligent human being and agreed to allow her into the back of his lectures. She did a lot of work with him and some of his colleagues, during which time she even dissected a fetus and a human head.

“She wanted to study anatomy because she wanted to find out about herself - she called herself an oddity and thought she was the missing link between men and women. There was so little language for being gay back then, we know now that she was biologicly a woman and that she had periods every month because she records it in her diary. But she wondered if inside she had male reproductive organs so she studied anatomy because she wanted to find out about who she was.

“She had such an analytical mind and was very good at compartmentalising things. She was very bold and very brave. I think there were times in her life when it worried her but it certainly didn't put her off trying to analyse it . She was passionate about science and medicine and this was a personal aspect of it for her.”

Anne Lister, played by Suranne Jones in BBC One's Gentleman Jack - (C) Lookout Point/HBO - Photographer: Jay Brooks
Anne Lister, played by Suranne Jones in BBC One's Gentleman Jack - (C) Lookout Point/HBO - Photographer: Jay Brooks

Set in West Yorkshire in 1832, Gentleman Jack is the epic story of charismatic, single-minded, swashbuckling Anne Lister - who walked like a man, dressed head-to-foot in black, and charmed her way into high society.

Returning after years of exotic travel and social climbing, Anne determines to transform the fate of her faded ancestral home, Shibden Hall, in Halifax.

To do this she must re-open her coal mines and marry well. But this isn’t just another Regency romance. True to her own nature, she plans to marry a woman. And not just any woman: the woman Anne Lister marries must be seriously wealthy.

Sally says that after a failed love affair with a woman who decided to marry a man rather than be with Anne, she “realised she was getting older and was desperate to find someone to settle down with and it was going to be a woman.”

Although Anne owned land, she was not a member of the aristocracy, but rather a landlord and coal mine owner. So she couldn’t set her heights on anyone in high society.

“She decided if she couldn't find someone to settle down with of rank she would find someone of fortune,” explains Sally.

“So she very practically looked around Halifax to see who could possibly fit that bill she identified a number of women she thought she could consider and at the top of that list was Anne Walker . She set her sights on Ann Walker in a way that was quite practical.

“It makes her sound quite predatory but i don't believe she was. I think everyone who slept with her wanted to sleep with her. She acted like men did at that time., she looked around for someone who was a viable proposition and would bring something to the party. And the pool was very small because she was looking fro a gay woman.”

The drama is set in the complex, changing world of Halifax - the cradle of the industrial revolution - just as it’s all beginning. It explores Anne’s relationships at home with her family, her servants, her tenants and her industrial rivals, as well as her love affair with and subsequent ‘marriage’ to Anne Walker.

“Her courtship of Anne Walker was incredibly romantic - she was very attentive to her,” says Sally.

“It becomes apparent that Anne Walker has always had a thing for Anne Lister, right from being in her teens. But she didn’t have the language to explain it. It’s clear from the diary Anne Walker was dazzled by Anne.”

“She was never one of Anne Lister’s great passions but she did talk of feeling unhinged by her.

“She was developing really tender feelings for this slightly younger woman which ultimately led to their marriage in Holy Trinity Church.”

Suranne Jones plays Anne Lister in BBC One's Gentleman Jack - Photographer: Jay Brooks
Suranne Jones plays Anne Lister in BBC One's Gentleman Jack - Photographer: Jay Brooks

The marriage consisted of attending Holy Communion together on Easter Monday, exchanging rings and taking oaths in private. Afterwards they changed their wills in favour of each other and Anne Walker moved into Shibden Hall.

The question is, how did this 19th century woman manage to get away with having gay affairs, going travelling alone, taking off to Paris to dissect bodies, or marrying a woman?

“I think she was profoundly unusual,” says Sally. “It wasn't considered seemly for women to even appear to be intelligent or to be interested in politics. They were considered to be blue a stocking if they were in any way intellectual and that was quite a derogatory thing.

“Anne was very conscious of that and she didn’t want to be thought of in that way so she had to be quite careful about telling anyone she had been doing these things she was very conscious of her position in society.

“Some people have criticised the show saying it's not difficult to behave in this transgressive way is you are rich and aristocratic but she wasn't either of those things.

“She was such an extrovert, she loved society and was a great social climber - so she was very clever at treading the fine line between doing what she wanted to do and while keeping one eye very keenly on society and not appearing to be too trangressant - even though she really was.

“She could have easily have ostracised herself by being too peculiar but it all comes back to her intellect and great charisma - she was a great conversationalist and was a very interesting person to know, so she managed to navigate her way through society without falling out of favour ”

After the marriage, the two women went visiting relatives together to put on a show of unity. Anne Walker’s family did make some attempts to ‘rescue’ her from Shibden Hall, but the two women spent the rest of their lives together.

Sally Wainwright, screenwriter of Gentleman Jack
Sally Wainwright, screenwriter of Gentleman Jack

Although she gained the local nickname Gentleman Jack for her clothes and manner, to modern eyes it is likely Anne Lister would not have looked too unusual

“She didn't dress as a man but she didn't entirely dress as a woman either,” says Sally.

“She always wore black, as if she was in mourning, so she would be in great contrast to what other women in society would wear, such as pastels.

in the show we have made her look a lot more masculine than she probably did in real life in terms of costume. We have pushed that look in the show because to a modern audience it wouldn't come across as unusual. People now are used to dressing how they want to dress.

“She didn't wear a top hat in real life - we made a decision to add that so to the modern eye she looks more androgynous. I was worried if we weren't bold enough with her costume a modern audience might think I dont get why she is so different to everyone else. But in her own time she would have cut a very unusual figure.”

Suranne Jones has brought the part to life on screen, but after spending so long with Anne Lister’s diaries, did Sally ever fear that no one could do her justice?

“I didn't think anybody could get all this stuff about Anne but she has just taken it to the next level. I think she is utterly extraordinary and that it is one of the most captivating breathtaking barnstorming performances that we are ever likely to see on telly.”

Sally Wainwright will be appearing at the Wimpole History Festival on June 21 in conversation with author Anne Choma, who helped to decipher Anne Lister’s diaries and has written a book about them.

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