Gentleman Jack: What do we know about the real Anne Lister?

The real history behind BBC1's Gentleman Jack about Anne Lister's coded diaries starring Suranne Jones and Sophie Rundle

Gentleman Jack

“Anne Lister is unique and fascinating,” Sally Wainwright begins in the foreword to Anne Choma’s biography, Gentleman Jack. “She is known primarily as a diarist, and as a great lesbian lover who recorded her adventures with other women in secret code, but there are a myriad other things to know about this extraordinary woman.”

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The screenwriter’s new BBC1 drama Gentleman Jack gives us a window into a crucial moment in Anne Lister’s life, introducing us to Suranne Jones as the 19th century English landowner. But in case that leaves you hungry for more, we’ve answered some of the big questions about the true story behind the drama…

**WARNING: CONTAINS SOME HISTORICAL SPOILERS FOR THE PLOT OF GENTLEMAN JACK**


Who was the real Anne Lister?

Gentleman Jack

Anne Lister was a Yorkshire landowner, prolific diarist and enthusiastic traveller. She was also a woman who unapologetically loved women – and is sometimes called the “first modern lesbian” thanks to her self-knowledge and acceptance of her sexual orientation.

Her journal, written partly in code (or “crypt”), details the daily life of an unconventional woman in the early 19th century, including her love affairs and eventual ‘marriage’ to an heiress. Anne penned more than four million words, covering everything from negotiations over the price of her coal (local businessmen would NOT be allowed to get the better of her) to the Queen of Denmark’s birthday party in Copenhagen (quite fun; but no need to ever go again) to her bitter rows with younger sister Marian (“cock of the dunghill”).

Born in 1791, Anne Lister was fiercely intelligent and full of boundless energy. She was very close to her Uncle James and Aunt Anne and frequently stayed with them at Shibden Hall, near Halifax in Yorkshire. This was the Lister ancestral home, and it was to their beloved niece Anne that this childless couple left ownership of Shibden Hall. Her aunt, in particular, seems to have been well aware of Anne’s exclusive interest in the fairer sex – but took it in her stride, becoming one of the most important people in Anne’s life.

Gemma Jones as Aunt Anne Lister in Gentleman Jack
Gemma Jones as Aunt Anne Lister in Gentleman Jack (BBC)

Anne Lister was a complicated character. She was considered to have a masculine appearance and stride, and stood out in Halifax thanks to her decision to dress only in black. She deviated from social norms – although she could use her charms and charisma to impress her posh friends when she wished to, working within the social framework of the late Georgian era. She had a passion for human anatomy and science and travel and mountaineering, and a huge appetite for new experiences.

As a smart businesswoman, Anne was never afraid to get hands-on and establish her authority; she went up against Halifax landowner and businessman Christopher Rawson (played by Vincent Franklin) and his brother Jeremiah (Shaun Dooley) in complex negotiations over coal, taking pride in protecting her interests. But she was also a massive snob, and could be a cruel landlord.

“There are so many facets to her personality,” Gentleman Jack screenwriter Sally Wainwright says. “She’s so extraordinary. She’s this mass of contradictions. She’s very bold and brilliant. She did so many fantastic extraordinary things.”


What was Anne Lister’s early life like?

Shibden Hall
Shibden Hall (Getty)

BBC1’s Gentleman Jack doesn’t actually introduce Anne Lister until quite late in her life. “We start in 1832 when Anne was 41. She inherited Shibden in 1836,” Wainwright explains. “It’s a ‘turning of life’ point: the time when she really came into her own and became the woman she was destined to become.”

However, Anne Lister – played by Suranne Jones in the BBC drama – had already led an extremely interesting life up to this point.

Military man Jeremy Lister (Timothy West) and his wife Rebecca Battle had six children, but after the deaths of all four of their sons, they were left with daughters Anne and Marian (Gemma Whelan) – two completely opposing personalities who never quite got on.

Young Anne was very bright, and was sent away to school in York. It was here that she met her first love, a girl called Eliza Raine. The teenagers shared an attic bedroom where they developed an intense friendship and love affair. Together, they also devised a secret code using algebra and Ancient Greek, which Anne used for the rest of her life to disguise the most private passages in her diary. Unfortunately, Anne was asked to leave the school after two years and was only able to return once Eliza had left.

At 19, she met Isabella “Tib” Norcliffe and they began a relationship, but the attraction was not to last and soon shifted to platonic friendship. In her 20s and 30s, she enjoyed a series of love affairs, sometimes arousing suspicion but flying mainly under the radar: as Anne Choma writes, “she lived in a world that had very different approaches to male and female homosexuality, with the former still being punishable by death, and the latter being left largely ignored.” People considered her “odd”, and in Halifax she was later nicknamed “Gentleman Jack”, but the word “lesbian” was not yet used – and Anne’s sexuality could not be openly discussed, even when it was tacitly acknowledged.

Anne also developed a passion for travel and was keen to expand her horizons beyond Yorkshire. In 1830, while travelling in France, she became the first woman to ascend the Monte Perdido in the Pyrenees. She sought out the top scientists in Europe and studied under them, obtaining body parts for dissection; and she read and studied voraciously.

But despite her desire to go abroad, Anne was deeply attached to Shibden Hall. She officially inherited the manor in 1826 after the death of her Uncle James, but she would not get full financial control until both her father Jeremy Lister and her beloved Aunt Anne died in 1836. Nevertheless, Shibden gave Anne a reasonable income (thanks to the labour and rents of her tenants) and this helped ensure her freedom to live as she wished.


Who was Marianna Belcombe?

Marianna in Gentleman Jack

At 23, Anne met ‘M’, or Marianna Belcombe, played on screen by Lydia Leonard. This was one of the most passionate of all Anne’s affairs, and lasted 16 or 17 years – but despite Anne’s early hopes that they could build a future together, ‘M’ bowed to convention and married a man.

The newly-named Marianna Lawton continued her affair with Anne, and the two wrote frank letters to each other for many years, sharing confidences as well as sharing a bed whenever she visited. But their relationship was also fraught with the pain of their romantic history, and sometimes with jealousy.

‘M’ spent years hoping for her unpleasant husband’s death so that she could reunite properly with Anne. But though ‘M’ was never far away from her thoughts, Anne was looking elsewhere for her “companion” and had also set her sights on a higher-class connection.

In Gentleman Jack: The Real Anne Lister, Anne Choma writes: “Anne was as determined as she had ever been to find a female life partner. She didn’t feel it was her nature to live alone – the nature which also dictated that settling for a man was never going to be part of the plan.”


What happened in Hastings with Vere Hobart?

Jodhi May as Vere Hobart in Gentleman Jack
Jodhi May as Vere Hobart in Gentleman Jack (BBC)

Gentleman Jack picks up Anne Lister’s story at a difficult moment in her life, because her attempt to win the heart of the young, aristocratic Vere Hobart (played by Jodhi May) had ended in humiliation and heartbreak.

Anne had spent a fruitful winter in Paris in 1829-30 socialising with her “high-ton” posh friends, and formed a friendship with Lady Stuart’s great-niece, Vere. With her eye on climbing the social ladder and forming a good connection, Anne had begun a tentative flirtation with Vere, and believed Vere had become increasingly aware of her sexual interest. Two years later, after cholera prevented their travel plans to the continent, they arranged to spend the winter together in Hastings.

It was a fraught winter. At times, it seemed to Anne that she was making progress; in November, she wrote: “I think the idea of being with me eventually is somehow getting more familiar to her mind. She really begins to flirt a little with me and looked very pretty when playing this evening. Well strange things happen – she may like me after all.”

But the situation deteriorated, and in January Vere’s male suitor Captain Donald Cameron appeared. Anne got the cold shoulder and was pushed to the sidelines, writing that her time in Hastings was “chequered with mortification and pain”. Cameron proposed, and was accepted. It was a bitter blow.


Did Anne Lister attend Vere’s wedding?

Though Anne does not appear to have attended Vere’s wedding, the passing of time – and Anne Lister’s new relationship with Ann Walker – seems to have helped. The two formed a solid friendship, and in September 1832 Anne wrote affectionately: “My dearest Vere, I am quite happy for your sake, and know not that I have one wish concerning you unsatisfied.” She thanked Vere for “her discretion” and for staying faithful to “her own very self.”


How did Anne Lister meet her love interest Ann Walker?

Suranne Jones and Sophie Rundle in Gentleman Jack (BBC)

In 1832, Anne Lister had an encounter with a wealthy heiress called Ann Walker. It was to change the path of her life.

The two had actually met several times before this point. As a child, Ann Walker had been involved in a carriage accident on Shibden land and had been given a cup of tea at the manor, but this did not evolve into any kind of friendship. In 1822, Anne had written caustically in her diary that young Ann Walker was “a stupid, vulgar girl indeed,” and while the Walker family were wealthy, they did not impress Anne who snobbishly looked down on “new money” gained from trade rather than ancient lineage.

However, after Anne’s return from Hastings, the two women’s paths crossed again – and this time it was different. Ann Walker (played by Sophie Rundle) visited Shibden on a chance social call with her relatives, and a week later Anne Lister returned the visit; as they got to know each other over the next few weeks, they found that they got on well and were intrigued by each other.

“Thought I,” Anne wrote in her diary in August, “shall I try and make up to her?”

Anne Lister was also attracted to Ann’s large fortune. In her biography, Anne Choma writes: “Clearly, Anne’s intentions towards Ann Walker were strategically inclined. She was working within a frame set by her heterosexual peers: for the middle and upper-classes in the nineteenth century a ‘good match’ was a marriage that made financial sense, with love a secondary consideration.”


Who was Ann Walker?

Sophie Rundle plays Ann Walker in Gentleman Jack

Ann Walker and her sister had inherited the enormous Lightcliffe estate after the death of their parents and brother, following an unhappy childhood with a father who was apparently abusive. While her sister Elizabeth had married and moved to Scotland, Ann remained at Lightcliffe with very little to interest her or occupy her time, and a couple of male trustees.

While she had no history of same-sex relationships, Ann Walker was drawn to Anne Lister – who was 12 years older than her – and the two quickly became inseparable.

The relationship between Anne and Ann was not plain sailing. Anne Lister was constantly trying to judge Ann Walker’s true feelings towards her, and even as their sexual relationship progressed, Anne was unsure whether Ann would agree to become her life-partner. Her diaries reveal torturous months of uncertainty and frustration.

As for Ann, her mental health was fragile, and she also complained of physical pain. Often she did not get out of bed, or spent the day lying on the sofa, and she suffered from low self-esteem; sometimes she was very anxious and self-critical and uncertain of her own mind.

Anne, whose own mental and physical health was robust (except, perhaps, for a problem with constipation), had heard about this in advance from Ann’s relatives, but as their relationship progressed she became increasingly involved in helping Ann to cope.


Did Anne Lister follow Ann Walker to the Lake District?

In September 1832, Ann Walker went on a three-week trip to the Lake District with her friend and relative, Catherine Rawson. Anne Lister did not follow her there, and instead spent those weeks seeing to her business on the estate and coming up with plans for improving Shibden Hall.

Before Ann left, Anne asked her if she’d be thinking of her while she was away. Ann said she would not forget, but Anne remained cautious about the future of the relationship. “Who knows how it may end,” she wrote. “I shall be wary this time.”

At this point, the two women had not yet become physically affectionate, but they were becoming increasingly close. A few weeks beforehand, when Anne Lister broke an ivory book knife that had been a treasured gift to Ann from Catherine Rawson, she was apologetic, but said it would be a good excuse for giving her another as a present someday “which she hoped she would value as much as the one destroyed”. Her love interest replied that she would value that gift even more than Catherine’s. They spent the day together before Ann left, and reunited as soon as she returned.


How did Ann Walker and Anne Lister marry?

Gentleman Jack - Ep 4

Anne Lister made it clear early in their relationship that she was after something serious: love, loyalty, and long-term commitment. She wanted Ann Walker to settle down with her, sleep with her, and travel with her. But would Ann agree?

Finally, Ann gave Anne the answer she hoped for. They exchanged rings, they wrote each other into their wills, and then on Easter Sunday 1834 they ‘married’ by taking communion together at a church in York.

Both had a strong Christian faith. While Ann Walker’s lifelong bouts of mental illness had often led her into religious mania and guilt, Anne Lister’s faith gave her a more positive outlook. She had reconciled the way God ‘made her’ with her understanding of the Bible, and Christianity was a source of comfort throughout her life. The two women may not have been legally married, but as Anne Choma writes, “To Anne Lister, their commitment had been solemnised. They had been joined together in the eyes of God.”

In September, Ann Walker moved in to Shibden Hall. Her fortune was used to improve the manor and its grounds, with Anne building a new Gothic tower to serve as her private library. The two lived a happy and settled life together, with Anne ending her relationship with ‘M’, and Ann overcoming her anxieties in order to travel with her wife.

It was during a trip to Koutais in the Russian Empire (now Georgia) that Anne Lister died of a fever in 1840, aged just 49. Ann Walker spent six months bringing her body back to Shibden. In the following years, her mental health deteriorated and she was forcibly removed by her brother-in-law from Shibden Hall, spending some time in an institution in York; she later moved back to her own estate and died in 1854.


Did Eugenie really exist – and what about the servants of Shibden Hall?

Gentleman Jack - Ep 1

Anne Lister’s French maid Eugenie Pierre did exist – but she wasn’t employed until a little later on in the story. Unlike the story we see on screen, she never crossed paths with Anne’s loyal servant George Playforth: the two of them never had an affair, and she was not pregnant with his child.

Eugenie (played by Albane Courtois) was recruited after an extensive search for a “clever lady’s maid” who had to be “sufficiently fond of travelling to make the best of everything.” Unfortunately, Anne was disappointed with her new lady’s maid and they didn’t immediately get on. Anne considered Eugenie extremely rude, and was irritated to find that she was a seasick traveller.

As for the Listers’ coachman George Playforth, he had indeed been killed earlier in the year: he was shot in the head in June 1832 while scaring birds out of a tree for a gamekeeper to shoot. He died a few days later. Anne was upset by his death, but – being fascinated by anatomy and the brain – stayed to watch George’s autopsy.

The real John Booth (Thomas Howes) was Anne’s trusted servant, and his son Joseph Booth (Ben Hunter) was also a servant – though at this point in 1832, he was not working at Shibden and was instead employed by a family near Langton.

Elizabeth Cordingley (Rosie Cavaliero) was another trusted servant, and according to Anna Choma, she “had served for many years as Anne’s lady’s maid and had long-standing knowledge of her mistress’s preference for women.”

As for her tenants, one was in fact called Samuel Sowden. Played by Anthony Flanagan in the drama as a rebellious and violent man, the real Sam Sowden had great ambitions for his children; his son Sutcliffe Sowden went to Cambridge University. Young Sutcliffe went on to become a vicar and officiated at the marriage of Charlotte Brontë and Arthur Bell Nicholls in 1854.


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Gentleman Jack airs on Sundays at 9pm on BBC1