Last Christmas, I got a load of books about remarkable women. One was someone I had first tripped over in a TV series called “Gentleman Jack”.
That is how I first crossed paths with Anne Lister of Shibden Hall.
Her claim to fame were meticulous diaries, some written in a crypto hand which needed to be decoded. And what was hiding behind those encrypted screens shocked and galvanized the world. Anne was a lesbian. She was a lesbian who wrote about her sexual encounters explicitly (albeit in cryptohand…)
Anne was also an heiress, a landowner, a businesswoman, a landlord, and someone who seemed to be acutely vulnerable underneath the hard outer exoskeleton that a woman like her had to wear in a world like hers.
I was entertained, riveted, fascinated, and educated by the TV series. Actress Suranne Jones, who brought her to life, REALLY brought her to life – the show took a dangerous decision to deliberately break the fourth wall and every now and then a loosely striding (oh that was a joy to watch) Suranne/Anne would turn to the camera and share something directly with the audience and it worked beautifully because after all the basis for the series was DIARIES and there is nothing more personal or intimate than that.
Long before the series ended, I ordered books about her. “Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister” (Ed. Helena Whitbread) – the direct source material for all of this (or so I thought but more on that anon); another was “Gentleman Jack: The Real Anne Lister” (Anne Choma) – based directly on the series I had just watched; and “Gentleman Jack: A Biography of Anne Lister (Angela Steidele) – a more comprehensive biographical work stretching over Anne’s lifetime and not just the window shown by the TV series. t“The Secret Diaries” turns out to be less than fascinating. For a start, it doesn’t even cover the period in which I first “met’ Anne Lister – the diaries chronicled in this book date from 1816 to 1824, which was almost ten years before the episode with Ann Walker, the subject of the TV series that introduced Anne Lister to me.
While indubitably a marvelous glimpse through a glass darkly into a life and lifestyle of (now) more than 200 years ago, Anne Lister’s diaries, in addition to giving salacious hints about lesbian lovemaking, are exactly that, meticulous DIARIES, and those… can be excruciatingly boring to read. Anne does not stint on detail. One example:
Friday 30 August 
Had a couple of cups of coffee & a glass of cold water & cold bread & butter & made a tolerable breakfast… the mail unusually late… I had my eyes shut but did not sleep musing on one thing or another. [insert description of a leaking inkwell and detailed descriptions on how a fix was made] On board the steam packet at 9:25 & weighed at (:40. Ordered breakfast & 9 of us sat down at 10. Bad Butter. Bread & muffins tolerable. No coffee on board…Eleven of the passengers have just dined close to my elbow & are paying 1/9 each for dinner & 9d. per bottle of porter and 1d. per biscuit. They are giving the woman waiter 2d. each… 2 hot roast-fowls, done by steam of course, at top, 2 ducks done at the bottom, a large cold ham & piece of cold roast beef at the bottom, potatoes & some sort of vegetable. Strong smell of onions… Landed at 7. Immediately came here (Shakespeare Tavern, Humber St. Hull), took our rooms… a very secondary sort of house.”
From the diary, I began to get a glimpse of an Anne I very much could not bring myself to like.
The diary – aside from her absolutely finicky daily details – also contains other stuff, of course, and part of that is Anne’s social relationships. As the resident, and heiress, of Shibden Hall she is something of a minor local aristocrat and somehow the social circles available to her locally appear to be… considered… beneath her. She is a little sniffy about her social opportunities. It starts with her own family – her sister Marian and her father –
“Marian, poor girl, is no society for me & I am thoroughly ashamed of my father’s vulgarity.” Then it escalates, and “vulgar” seems to be rather a favorite word, particularly about a woman named Emma Saltmarshe, whom Anne Lister calls on socially but really doesn’t seem to like all that much.
Anne Lister… was a snob. This wasn’t something that endeared her to me.
I plowed through the “Secret Diaries” and reached for the “Gentleman Jack: the Real Anne Lister” by Anne Choma.
This book follows closely the events covered by the series I watched, so I was a little more directly familiar with the subject matter. This book does state that Anne, who did present herself in a masculine manner which was thought odd by her society, was often “called names and jeered at by people who she would refer to as ‘vulgar’ or common.”.
Ah, okay, so maybe it was a little piece of social armor, then. Still. It comes across as terribly snotty.
It is explicitly stated that she wished to transform the ageing and rather rustic Shibden Hall into something “Far grander, and “more befitting a woman like her, with designs on extensive (and expensive) foreign travel, and on moving within the higher echelons of Georgian society”. Armor or not, Anne Lister still appeared to be something of a social climber and a society wannabe. She saw herself as better than those she was forced to live with on a daily basis.
This was the Ann Walker era of Anne Lister’s life.
The TV series hinted at a lot more than it actually showed, and it also romanticized the relationship quite a bit – because although Anne Lister appeared to have a genuine affection for Ann Walker, in the series, there seems to have been a considerable amount of cold hard financial calculus applied as well.
In this book, Ann Walker is described as a “shy woman who had the courage to make a conspicuous commitment to the woman she was so dazzled by” – but that commitment didn’t come easily, or quickly – and Ann Walker appears to have been, at least at SOME points in her relationship with Anne Lister, a bit of a basket case with which Lister didn’t seem to know how to deal with. There was patience and there was kindness but there was also resentment and annoyance and while the series stops at a heart-stoppingly romantic moment of that mutual commitment and the ‘marriage’ the two women entered into it didn’t follow it into the aftermath. Well, like most marriages it was difficult at times – and there WAS a distinct hint that Anne was at least partly interested in Ann Walker for her money.
That, at least, is tackled a bit more closely in the third book, Angela Steidele’s “Gentleman Jack: a biography of Anne Lister”.
This was the book that I had been looking for in the first place
Anne’s life portrayed in chapters headed by the names of her (lesbian) partners – and here, at last, you can catch the glimpses of those explicit and encrypted lesbian diaries which so scandalized people when they were first discovered. Anne’s first forays into loving the fairer sex – her initial commitment to Mariana Belcombe who married Charles Lawton and then dangled Anne Lister as a backup plan for many years.
Other women crossed Anne’s path right until she met with Ann Walker and made the grand bargain that sealed the lifestyle she wanted. Ann Walker wasn’t titled or connected but she DID bring in the money that Anne needed for Shibden Hall, her coal mining ventures, and her beloved foreign travel in the style to which she wished to become accustomed.
Anne’s wide academic interests, as well as her almost obsessive need to catalogue the minutiae of her days. She literally ended up having to index her diaries.
She insisted on the minutiae – on recording again and again the exact time it took her to walk from her home to Church for services, and of course the meticulous and often judgmental comments on her food, her lodgings, her horses, her carriages and the people she ‘called on’ during her social rounds.
There was literally one person of overwhelming importance in Anne Lister’s life and that was herself. Steidele writes in her book: “None of the women prepared to marry her ever seemed good enough. Anne Lister’s great love was herself. She lavished her entire attention on her ego, her being, her body, and her world. The ego was the reason that she wrote…. Her lovers knew that too. Every one of them was jealous of her journal, her great love letter to herself.”
Much has been made of Anne Lister’s being the first modern or open lesbian – but it simply has to be said that in what we consider to be the “prudish” pre-Victorian and Victorian eras there didn’t really seem to have been any great risk or consequence to women’s relationships with other women. Girls routinely shared rooms, and beds, and went on to marry apparently untouched by scandal. It was not illegal in the manner that a relationship between two men – partly because it was difficult for the men who made the laws to wrap their heads around just what two women would do with one another, sexually.
That said, the Lister/Walker partnership was clearly overt and in the open and it did take some courage to stamp that on the matter.
Anne Lister lived her life without fear. This was a woman who was almost preternaturally self-aware – the fact that she was capable of self-delusion too does not take anything away from that. She knew what she wanted, and she worked to get it – and she got most of it, in the end. She might have, eventually, chafed at her bonds to Ann Walker but they also freed her to do what she wanted to do, which was travel, explore, blaze new paths.
It was on such a journey – never before undertaken by a woman – through Russia and over the Caucasus mountains, in the teeth of winter – that her body finally failed her, and she returned to England in a coffin, aged only 49.
She didn’t live out her half-century, but what a half-century she made it.
She was intelligent, smart, opinionated, obstinate, sharp, brilliant, and difficult. She was probably a tough person to like. But – well – let Angela Steidele sum it up:
“I have had a similar experience with Anne Lister as all the women in her life – first she seduced me, then she betrayed me. W first seeded hat I liked even more than Anne Lister’s astoundingly open way of speaking about her desire was her certainty of herself; her desire was an expression of her nature, and that was that.”
I take away… a bittersweet experience. First, she seduced me, and then she betrayed me, and perhaps I should not be surprised or disappointed to find her human, and as fallible as the next person. Still. I wanted to her to be more than that. I don’t know that we should have been friends – she might, after all, have thought me ‘vulgar’… but even knowing the flaws, I raise my hat to “Gentleman Jack”.
She was unique. In a world of clones, she was ever and unflinchingly herself.
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