There’s nothing quite like a good old-fashioned costume-drama to sink your teeth into on a Sunday night. In the days before ‘catch-up’ (which we’re all playing these days, as technology leapfrogs ahead of us), we used to wait for the next episode on television of whatever English literature text had been revived for our delectation, with crinolines and frockcoats, grubby peasants and dastardly lords, and ladies sporting gravity-defying hair-dos.
The latest in this distinguished line is the historical drama series Gentleman Jack, available on streaming platform Hotstar. From the slick opening credits — corset laces being winched in, a fob watch being nattily pocketed, a top hat perched at a jaunty angle — I was hooked. Even more so by the information that the eponymous hero of this particular Regency romp was not a hero at all, but a heroine — a real, historical woman, and what a woman at that!
The series is inspired by the diaries of Anne Lister, a wealthy landowner, industrialist (she opened her own coal mine), tireless traveller, architect, entrepreneur, scientist, explorer, mountaineer and, perhaps most famously, as Britain’s first ‘modern lesbian’.
Lister was born in West Yorkshire in 1791 — just two years after the French Revolution, with the Napoleonic Wars raging, and Europe in a state of turmoil. Packed off to boarding school at the age of seven, she was an unruly, tree-climbing, tirelessly rule-breaking child, often playing truant.
At 15, she began writing a diary, a practice she continued until just six weeks before her death at the foot of the Caucasus Mountains in Tblisi, Georgia, in September 1840. Think of prolific diarists and the name Pepys springs to mind, right? English administrator and diarist Samuel Pepys’s diary runs to about a 1.25 million words — Lister’s is almost four times as many! And hers is no run-of-the-mill diary of a genteel lady, but includes a detailed and explicit account of her sexual liaisons with women, written in what she calls ‘crypt-hand’, a combination of Greek, algebra and symbols of her own design.
These portions of the diary went undeciphered for centuries, until another unlikely Yorkshire woman by the name of Helena Whitbread stumbled upon them in her local library in Calderdale in 1983. A mother of four and a part-time barmaid in a pub, Whitbread had dropped out of school at 13, and only took up further education in her mid-30s. Wanting to write “a short article” about Lister, the former owner of Shibden Hall, a grand manor house nearby, she asked the library’s archivist about her. “Did you know she kept a diary?” the archivist asked, and pulled up a page on the microfiche screen: A page of Anne’s ‘secret code’. “From then on, I was intellectually hooked,” said Whitbread, and 32 years later, she is still working on the journals.
This mountain of text, says Whitbread, shows a “truly remarkable woman” on a “mission to understand her own lesbian identity”, at a time before there was even a language with which to describe it.
The diaries begin with the simplest of sentences, three small words: “Eliza left us”. The Eliza in question was a classmate of Lister’s and her first great love.
Known to locals as ‘Gentleman Jack’ throughout her adult life, Lister dressed entirely in black, and strode about her estate, swishing her cane, issuing orders and being utterly forthright in her opinions and in her actions. She was not above digging ditches and hammering in fenceposts with the workers and she more than held her own in the cut-throat business of coal mining during what was the start of the industrial revolution. “The people generally remark, as I pass along, how much I am like a man,” she wrote.
“I love and only love the fairer sex, and thus beloved in turn by them, my heart revolts from any other love than theirs.” She was, in other words, a most unladylike lady — a dashing figure, and a bit of a ‘rake’, seducing the pretty women who took her fancy with a potent combination of wit, charm and sheer force of personality.
In the TV series, Suranne Jones portrays Lister as a woman of insatiable curiosity, keen insight and formidable intellect: Staunch friend and implacable foe. You wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of Lister. Here was a woman unable and unwilling to bend her shape to suit society’s expectations, as fascinating to herself as she was to others: “I am an enigma even to myself and do excite my own curiosity,” she writes in her journal.
It is thanks to Whitbread’s painstaking work deciphering Lister’s encrypted writings that we have access to this enigmatic woman at all. The family tried at various points to destroy or suppress her story, and Lister herself believed her code to be un-crackable.
In 1990, the first ‘woman-to-woman prime time screen kiss happened — in Jeanette Winterson’s TV adaptation of her own groundbreaking autobiographical novel, Oranges are not the only fruit. In an article for the Radio Times to coincide with a documentary about Lister in 2010, Winterson acknowledges her debt of gratitude not only to Anne Lister, “but [to] the other women who had finally been able to de-code and publish such an important life story — important for any woman wanting to make her own choices in the world, regardless of what is or isn’t socially acceptable.” Winterson ends with a quote from that extraordinary pioneer, who wrote 200 years ago, in words that are no less true today, that “the intellect has no gender”.
First published in The Hindu Business Line, BLInk supplement, 12.7.19