Sunday, 19 May 2019

Welcome Back, Gentleman Jack!

Behind her back, she's Gentleman Jack
A Yorkshire lady of renown
Ever so fine, won't toe the line
Speak her name, Gentleman Frown.

At Shibden Hall she had them all
The fairer sex fell under her spell
Dapper and bright, she held them tight
Handsome Anne seduced them well.

Gentleman Jack, oh Gentleman Jack

Watch your back, you're under attack
Their husbands are coming, you'd better start running
For nobody likes a Jack-the-lass.

Jack-the-lass, Jack-the-lass

No one likes a Jack-the-lass
The code is cracked, your bags are packed
The knives are out for Gentleman Jack!

Tonight, there will be a television show airing at 9pm on the BBC that has been over 20 years in the making... well, if you're counting the time when television didn't exist, it's actually almost 200 years in the making.

You may not have heard of Anne Lister before, and there is a reason for that. Up until now, her name has only been mentioned in hushed tones. In fact, after speaking to a few sources, even the tour guides at Shibden Hall in Yorkshire, Anne Lister's home, did not talk about her for years.

Suranne Jones as Anne Walker (left) and the real Anne (right)

This has all changed, thankfully! Anne Lister is a very important historical figure, but simply because she was a gay woman, she is never talked about in schools or most history books of the Victorian era. This kind of censorship is the reason it has taken Sally Wainwright over 20 years to get Anne's story to television - because no one wanted to risk putting a show about a real life lesbian on air.

I'll give you a brief overview, but if you want to know more and read along whilst watching the show, click here to buy the BBC companion biography by Sally Wainwright herself!

Anne Lister was born into the wealthy Lister family of Shibden, Yorkshire. When she was a teenager, she got sent to school but was kicked out (possibly because of the relationship between her and Eliza Raine) so began to seek out her own education. This led her to being very clever, as well as very rich, so she was able to travel the world alone and live to tell the tale. 

She was very different to every other woman at the time. She wore only black men's clothes, had a better education than most women, and she was also an incredible businesswoman. She inherited the Shibden coal mines, and collected taxes when other men couldn't, and was very masculine in her activities. She did not want to be a man, and we know this from her diary - she was simply exhausted by the lack of things women could do at the time, so she fought it.

Suranne Jones as Anne Lister and Sophie Rundle as Ann Walker


She wrote 5 million words in her diary, and a sixth of them were in code she had created with Eliza made of Ancient Greek and other numerals. The coded words told all about her relationships with other women, a scandal at the time! (Bear in mind people already had suspicions, which is how she got the nickname Gentleman Jack, which is supposed to be offensive but Anne brushed it off). 

When they were found by John Lister after her death, despite others saying he needed to burn the diaries, he kept them safe behind a panel in the Hall and they are still being translated today. In fact, they were being translated second by second, even when the cameras were rolling for the television show! The cast and crew were the first people to hear the new translations of this code!

And I am so glad John kept them, because now we have this wonderful first hand account of both Anne's life and the life of pre-Victorian and Victorian society. The television show allows us to join Anne in the 1830's, when she met Ann Walker, who became her 'wife' and who she was with until her death in 1840, when she never recovered from a fever.

Why do I think Anne Lister's story is so important? 

Because it shows people, on prime time television, that the LGBT+ community was always here, and it is not just a trend. Because Anne gave us a detailed account of life during the early 1800's, and this is seriously exciting for historians as well as gay women. Because lesbians deserve to be main characters, and not just forgotten about on the side.

Anne, you may have been silenced for many years, but we are bringing you home.