A dramatic historical account of the life of one of the most unconventional LGBT figures in British history recently started airing on BBC and HBO. Gentleman Jack recounts the story of Anne Lister, a mountaineer, business owner, traveller and (perhaps most controversially) diarist.
Living through the early 19th century, Lister was an absolute individualist who cared very little about people’s perception of her, defiantly dressing in masculine clothing and going against almost all the norms set out for the women of her time.
Lister is often called “the first modern lesbian” due to her openly gay lifestyle during a time when the proper language to describe her same-sex relationships did not even exist yet.
When she was put in charge of Shibden Hall, a brick-and-timber mansion originally owned by her aunt and uncle, in 1826, the subsequent income from tenants on the property gave the then 35-year-old relative freedom to live her life as she pleased.
Lister was a polymath with a wide range of interests, including mountaineering (in 1830, she became the first woman to ascend the third-highest mountain in the Pyrenees range, Mount Perdu). She had an insatiable appetite for the written word, and her own extensive diary, kept studiously from 1806 to 1840 and encompassing a staggering roughly five million words (a sixth of these, due to their sensitive and sexual nature, transcribed in code made up of ancient Greek letters and algebraic signs) gives us a glimpse into the life of this extraordinary woman.
She had a number of relationships throughout her life, but perhaps one of the most significant was Lister’s last with Ann Walker, a wealthy heiress that she met in 1832. Their union, sealed by taking communion together at the Holy Trinity Church in Goodramgate, York in 1834 is considered the first lesbian marriage held in Britain, albeit one that was not recognised officially.
Anne Lister died in Georgia in September 1840, aged just 49, after she came down with a fever, possibly due to a tick bite. Although she was well known among the local residents of Halifax, where she resided for a large part of her life, it was only when writer Helena Whitbread decoded her diaries in the 1980s that the full extent of Lister’s defiance of the expectations of her time truly came to the fore.
Known as “Gentleman Jack” by the residents of Halifax and called “Fred” by her lover, Anne Lister is a notable figure whose life ended when the shackles of the Victorian era were just beginning to tighten around the wrists of a society that would only be truly freed again by the sexual liberation of the 1960s.
There’s no word on whether local viewers will be able to watch the BBC’s Gentleman Jack, but until we can sink our teeth into this tale of sensual non-compliance, here is the official trailer.