Anne Lister: The REAL Gentleman Jack


An 1830 portrait of the real Anne Lister by Joshua Horner and Suranne Jones as Lister in Gentleman Jack

It is easy to become obsessed with the series Gentleman Jack. It follows the love life of English woman Anne Lister, a masculine and powerfully lesbian character, who lived during the 18th and 19th centuries.

While this may seem whimsical and unrealistic, the series is based on the very real Anne Lister; a businesswoman, estate owner and out lesbian.

Lister is considered to be the very first “modern lesbian”. Her masculine appearance and behaviour earned her the nickname “Gentleman Jack” in some parts of Halifax, Yorkshire.

She wrote about her exploits with women – as well as her day-to-day life – in several journals, which her family kept hidden. The journals were coded in her own invented language.

When John Lister, one of her relatives, stumbled upon the journals towards the end of the 19th Century, he was advised to burn them. Luckily, he didn’t and kept them hidden.

It wasn’t until 1982 when her journals resurfaced and her cryptic code was deciphered. Helena Whithead took six years to work out Lister’s code and continues to decipher Lister’s many journals.

In one entry dated 29 January 1821, Lister writes : “I love and only love the fairer sex and thus beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any other love than theirs.”

In a time when homosexuality was illegal in England, lesbianism passed under the radar to some extent. Still, it was considered abhorrent. Yet Lister openly pursued women and flaunted her masculine appearance.

Lister later met a wealthy young woman named Ann Walker and entered into a deep, committed relationship with her. The pair even exchanged rings in their own version of a marriage ceremony, and took the sacrament at their church together in the Easter of 1834.

The two women lived together and shared their lives with one another until Lister’s death from an illness in 1840 at the age of 49.

It wasn’t uncommon for women to live together during the 19th Century. This was often referred to as a “Boston marriage” in the late 1800s. The name was taken from a Henry James novel called The Bostonians, which details the lives of two women who live together.

Lister’s story provides us as LGBTQI+ individuals with some appreciation for those of us who came before and the difficulties they had to live through.

In 2011, the diaries were added to the UNESCO Memory of the World UK register as a “comprehensive and painfully honest account of lesbian life” that “have shaped and continue to shape the direction of UK Gender Studies and Women’s History.”

The two-season Gentleman Jack HBO series, starring Suranne Jones as Anne Lister and created by Sally Wainwright, is available on various streaming platforms, including Showmax in South Africa.

Get the Mamba Newsletter

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Send this to a friend