The True Story Behind Gentleman Jack: 10 Facts About Anne Lister

Suranne Jones stars as Anne Lister in HBO's Gentleman Jack.
Suranne Jones stars as Anne Lister in HBO's Gentleman Jack.
Jay Brooks, HBO

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.

Portrait by Joshua Horner - GLBTQ Encyclopedia, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

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.

Amazon's Best Cyber Monday Deals on Tablets, Wireless Headphones, Kitchen Appliances, and More

Amazon
Amazon

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Beyond Queen Elizabeth: 10 Fantastic Shows to Stream After The Crown

Emma Corrin as Princess Diana and Josh O'Connor as Prince Charles in season 4 of The Crown.
Emma Corrin as Princess Diana and Josh O'Connor as Prince Charles in season 4 of The Crown.
Alex Bailey/Netflix

So you’ve already torn through the latest season of The Crown, which arrived on Netflix in mid-November. You’ve watched and evaluated the performances of the new cast members, including Emma Corrin as Princess Diana and Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher. You’ve done your Google searches on the events depicted in season 4, including the disappearance of Thatcher's son Mark. You’ve played back every scene featuring a corgi. What are you going to do now?

If you’re looking for something else that’s historical, royal, or just vaguely British, give one of these shows a try. They’re all available on a major streaming service and they all feature the same whispered bombshells and meaningful glances that make The Crown such a quietly devastating—and highly addicting—drama.

1. Victoria

Like The Crown, Victoria opens with a young queen ascending the throne after a death in the family. Only in this case, the queen is 18-year-old Alexandrina Victoria, who would rule Great Britain and Ireland for an astonishing 63 years. This costume drama hasn’t even covered a third of that reign, but it’s packed with plenty of royal scandal, real-world politics, and dramatic gowns into its three seasons. There’s no official word on when fans can expect the next batch of episodes, but writer Daisy Goodwin has promised “an absolute humdinger” of a fourth season.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

2. The Tudors

Henry VIII famously had a problem with commitment. He married six women, more than one of whom he had executed, making his life prime material for a soapy drama. Showtime delivered just that with The Tudors, which aired its final episode in 2010. The show covered each of Henry’s marriages and various international affairs in between, casting now famous British actors in some of their earliest roles. Henry Cavill appears in all four seasons as the king’s brother-in-law, Charles Brandon, and Natalie Dormer (a.k.a. Margaery Tyrell) dominates the first two seasons as Henry’s doomed second wife, Anne Boleyn.

Where to watch it: Netflix

3. Outlander

Take all of the historical intrigue of The Crown, add in some time travel and a lot more sex scenes, and you have Outlander. Based on Diana Gabaldon’s best-selling book series, this Starz original centers on Claire Randall, a nurse living in post-WWII Britain who is sent back in time to 1740s Scotland. Her travels don’t end there. Over the course of the show, Claire schmoozes with the French royal court in Paris and gets shipwrecked off the coast of the American colonies. She also falls in love with a Highlander named Jamie, even as she attempts to reunite with her husband Frank (played by Tobias Menzies, The Crown's current Prince Philip) in the present day.

Where to watch it: Netflix

4. Call The Midwife

Drawing on the diaries of a midwife who worked in the East End of London in the 1950s, this BBC show follows young women in medical training as they travel in and out of the homes of expectant Brits. By focusing on a working class neighborhood, Call the Midwife paints a picture of the London outside Queen Elizabeth’s palace walls, exploring in particular the stories of mothers in a post-baby boom, pre-contraceptive pill world.

Where to watch it: Netflix

5. Upstairs Downstairs

The first Upstairs, Downstairs aired in the 1970s—and when it ended, the tony Bellamy family had just been devastated by the stock market crash of 1929. The reboot (note the lack of comma in the title) picks up in 1936, with one of the original series' housekeepers serving a new family. Just like the original, it shows the very different lives of the “upstairs” aristocrats and their “downstairs” domestic staff, while nodding at current events that would’ve affected them both. A special treat for fans of The Crown: Claire Foy, who played Queen Elizabeth in The Crown's first two seasons, playing the frequently misbehaved Lady Persephone Towyn.

Where to watch it: BritBox

6. Versailles

Ever wondered what it was like to party in the Hall of Mirrors? Versailles takes you inside the grand French palace of the same name, fictionalizing the lives of Louis XIV (the “Sun King”) and his court in the mid-1600s. Versailles isn’t quite as critically adored as The Crown and its cohorts—many reviewers have written it off as a slighter historical series—but it’s got all the requisite melodrama and the jaw-dropping sets we’ve come to expect from these costume epics.

Where to watch it: Netflix

7. Poldark

When war breaks out between the Brits and American colonists, Ross Poldark leaves his hometown of Cornwall to fight for King George III. After eight years of battles, the redcoats lose, sending Poldark back across the ocean, where he finds that everything has changed: His father is dead, his estate is in ruins, and the love of his life is engaged to his cousin. This is where Poldark, the BBC adaptation of Winston Graham’s eponymous novels, picks up. While Ross Poldark is a fictional character, the show incorporates lots of real history, from the aftermath of the Revolutionary War to the subsequent revolution in France. Amazon Prime has all five seasons of the series, which ended its run in 2019.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

8. The Borgias

Rodrigo, Cesare, and Lucrezia Borgia were extremely influential nobles in 15th and 16th century Italy. In 1492, Rodrigo claimed the papacy and, with it, control of the Roman Catholic Church. That basically meant he and his children ruled the country: as long as Rodrigo was Pope Alexander VI, the Borgias could get anything they wanted. Showtime dramatized their power plays, betrayals, and rumored incest over three seasons of The Borgias, with Jeremy Irons in the lead role as Rodrigo.

Where to watch it: Netflix

9. Downton Abbey

If you missed out on the Downton Abbey craze in 2010, now is the perfect time to catch up. The entire series—which concerns the upper-crust Crawley family and their many servants—is available on Amazon Prime, and the 2019 movie is available on HBO Max (or for rent on Prime Video). Though the story is primarily set in the 1910s and 1920s, Maggie Smith’s withering insults are timeless.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

10. Coronation Street

If you want to understand the royals, you have to watch their favorite shows—and Coronation Street has long been rumored to be Queen Elizabeth’s preferred soap. (Prince Charles is also a fan; he appeared on the show’s live 2000 special.) Airing on ITV since 1960, Coronation Street follows several working-class families in the fictional town of Weatherfield.

Where to watch it: Hulu, Tubi

This story has been updated for 2020.