The True Story Behind Gentleman Jack: 10 Facts About Anne Lister
By Mark Mancini
Anne Lister was one of the 19th century's most intriguing characters: she was a businesswoman, a mountaineer, a world traveler, and a science enthusiast. But it’s her love life that she’s mainly remembered for today. Often described as the “first modern lesbian,” Lister had a number of same-sex relationships, as chronicled in her gripping, 26-volume diary. Due in part to her rather masculine fashion sense, Lister was nicknamed “Gentleman Jack.” Which also happens to be the title of a new HBO series based on her life, starring the brilliant Suranne Jones (Doctor Foster, Coronation Street). Here are 10 things you should know about Anne Lister.
1. Anne Lister used her love of books as a compatibility test.
“I love and only love the fairer sex, and thus beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any love but theirs,” Lister wrote in her diary in 1820. Before she eventually settled down with heiress Ann Walker, Lister won the hearts of numerous other women. Courting them wasn’t always easy, but Lister had her methods. While flirting, she used to gauge the other party’s interest by mentioning books or plays that dealt with LGBTQ issues—like the writings of Juvenal, a Roman poet who had some pretty strong opinions about homosexuality. By watching the listener’s reaction, Lister could often predict if her advances would be successful.
2. Traditionally “feminine” clothing just wasn’t Lister’s style.
Lister's era was one full of whalebone corsets and restrictive petticoats, yet her personal style emphasized function over form. Because she moved at a brisk pace and enjoyed long walks through the countryside (she reportedly walked 25 miles in a single outing on at least one occasion), she tended to wear thick, leather boots, which were generally deemed unladylike. She further defied convention by sporting lots and lots of black. Even though it was seen as a masculine color at the time, Lister filled her wardrobe with black bodices and long coats. She felt that the dark garments complimented her wiry physique, and in 1817, Lister—then 26 years old—declared, “I have entered upon my plan of always wearing black.”
3. She ran her family's estate for more than a decade.
Growing up, Lister would frequently visit Shibden Hall, the brick-and-timber mansion that was the home of her aunt and uncle, who had no children of his own. Lister moved into the estate in 1815, after the untimely deaths of all four of her brothers. When her uncle James passed away in 1826, the job of managing Shibden Hall (and its surrounding 400 acres) fell to Lister. She handled its finances, oversaw its coal deposits and quarries, profited off of the onsite canals and timber, and collected rent from its tenants right up until her death in 1840.
4. As an anatomy student, Lister once dissected a human head.
On one of her extended trips to Paris, Lister was often seen attending scientific lectures, where she deepened her knowledge of everything from zoology to mineralogy. According to Angela Steidele’s 2018 book, The Gentleman Jack: A Biography of Anne Lister, Regency Landowner, Seducer and Secret Diarist, the eager pupil cut open a deceased rabbit, a severed human hand, a disembodied ear, and “a woman’s head.” “It is not known where the head came from,” Steidele wrote. “Anne, who had kissed so many women, took on the dissection of the face. She preserved the bits in rectified spirits and kept them in a cabinet she obtained especially, which also contained a skeleton and several skulls."
5. She was an accomplished mountaineer.
In 1830, Lister earned the distinction of becoming the first woman to ascend Mount Perdu, the third highest mountain in the Pyrenees Range. (Its peak is 11,007 feet above sea level.) Eight years later, she became the first amateur climber to ever scale the Vignemale, an almost equally tall summit in the same range.
6. She and Ann Walker married in 1834 in what is often cited as the first lesbian wedding in recorded British history.
On Easter Sunday, 1834, Lister married Ann Walker in what is often cited as the first lesbian wedding in recorded British history.
The women had been acquaintances for several years. Walker was 12 years younger than Lister and, by all accounts, a whole lot shyer. In 1834, she finally accepted Lister’s persistent proposals to join her in a union that would be “the same as a marriage” (as Walker described it).
After selecting a pair of rings, they took communion together on Easter Sunday, 1834, at the Holy Trinity Church, Goodramgate in York. So far as Lister and Walker were concerned, the shared Easter service was their stand-in wedding ceremony. They never mentioned this to the church, and their marriage went unrecognized in the eyes of the law. But if you visit the house of worship today, you’ll find a rainbow-ringed plaque that reads, “Anne Lister 1791-1840 of Shibden Hall, Halifax Lesbian and Diarist; took sacrament here to seal her union with Ann Walker [on] Easter 1834.”
7. an angry mob once burned effigies of lister and walker .
Lister didn't make a lot of friends among her tenants. She used to pressure them into voting Tory and refused to rent land to people who didn’t share her political beliefs. Her notoriety only increased after she began her new domestic life with Walker. Lister took an active role in managing her significant other’s estate, which was located near Shibden Hall. Soon, a dispute broke out over a drinking well on Walker’s land. Although residents of the broader community depended on that well, Lister considered it family property. So to assert her control over the situation, she had a barrel of tar dumped into the water—making it unfit for consumption. In retaliation, effigies of both Lister and Walker were burned. (Ultimately, a magistrate ruled that the water belonged to the public, and that Lister’s actions were unjustified.)
8. Lister died while vacationing in the country of Georgia.
Throughout her life, Lister maintained a passion for traveling. In 1840, Lister and Walker toured eastern Europe. That autumn, the couple was out exploring present-day Georgia (the country) when Lister came down with a horrible fever, possibly as the result of a tick bite. [PDF] Lister died on September 22, 1840; she was only 49 years old. Walker brought Lister's remains back to England, where they were buried at Halifax Minster.
9. Altogether, Lister wrote more than 7000 pages of diary entries.
Lister left behind a 26-volume diary encompassing a grand total of 7722 pages and roughly 5 million words. She started documenting her fascinating life in 1806, when she was just 15 years old. Around one-sixth of the preserved pages were transcribed in code. Those cryptic passages included some vivid descriptions of Lister’s sex life.
10. Some of those diary entries had to be decoded—twice!
The code Lister used was an odd, punctuation-free mixture of ancient Greek letters and algebraic signs. Toward the end of the 19th century, John Lister, one of her surviving relatives, successfully cracked the code with the help of his friend, Arthur Burrell. But once he figured out what the documents actually said, John hid them away, lest they attract a scandal. When Lister’s journals were subsequently rediscovered, a writer by the name of Helena Whitbread managed to unravel the code again in the 1980s. Whitbread then published decoded editions of the diaries, and the rest is history.