Gentleman Jack: The Amazing Real Life Story of Anne Lister

One of the few positives about being a film extra is you get to know about productions for the telebox and your local fleapit long before the public do. So about a year ago I was asked if I was available for filming in Halifax for “Gentleman Jack”, a Victorian period drama. That’s all I was told. Unfortunately their shooting dates and my calendar didn’t gel, so I missed out.

Gentleman Jack: The Amazing Real Life Story of Ann Lister
Gentleman Jack – the amazing real life story of Anne Lister

However, I became curious as to what this was about – and discovered the most amazing real life story of Anne Lister which is now being revealed in the Sunday night drama slot (left vacant by Line Of Duty) on BBC One.

If you see the name Sally Wainwright as the writer on any TV drama today you know it’s going to be quality. As a Fellow of the Royal Television Society her successes include Happy Valley, Jane Hall, Last Tango In Halifax, To Walk Invisible: The Bronte Sisters and of course Scott and Bailey.

The star of “Gentleman Jack” is Suranne Jones who played Rachel Bailey and who also recently took the lead role in “Dr Foster”.

Sally Wainwright with actor Suranne Jones

Sally specialises in writing strong Northern women – so Anne Lister the first Yorkshire lesbian industrialist was a shoe-in and although Suranne wasn’t the first name on the lips of the producers, Sally quickly realised she was the one.

Working alongside Anne Choma the writer of the book which accompanies the TV series, she was aided by the research of Helena Whitbread who has spent 5 years decoding the 2 million words and 6,600 pages of Anne’s diaries found behind panelling at Shibden Hall in Halifax, West Yorkshire in the 1930’s by her descendent John Lister and his friend Arthur Burrell.

An extract from Anne Lister’s diaries

When they began to break the code and realised the sexual nature of the contents, Burrell urged Lister to burn the diaries. Thankfully he didn’t and hid them back behind the panelling.

Today they’re protected by UNESCO status as a World Heritage Document and Helena has worked tirelessly to reveal just how groundbreaking they are and what an amazing  life of lesbian love Anne lived – before the word had been invented.

You can easily read the story of Anne Lister and I would urge you do to so as it’s fascinating, so I won’t give you chapter and verse here. But I will tempt you with some nibbles.

Her diaries are the reason she is remembered. They describe in great detail her prolific gender fluidity as well as her methods of lesbian seduction in her daily life. The carefully encoded and detailed notes she left also shed light on social, national, political and economic events of her time much as Samuel Pepys diaries did of the 17th Century. Like Pepys, they are also most explicit.

Suranne Jones who plays the part of “Gentleman Jack”

What is striking if you start to read them is her bravery. She wore black, dressed like a man and “took part in many activities not perceived to be the norm for a gentlewoman” which included opening and running a coalmine.

Even the love of her life, Marianna Lawton, was initially ashamed to be seen with her in public due to her fear of open ridicule as Anne often wore breeches, a gent’s coat and a top hat.

The real Anne Lister

Her four brothers had all died young so Anne inherited Shibden Hall in Halifax and believed it was her bravery in being “out” as a lover of women along with her charismatic personality and sheer force of nature that allowed her to become the owner.

The locals began to refer to her as “Gentleman Jack”.  But Anne had nothing to fear as being a lover of her own sex in C19th was not illegal.  She was lucky as for men to love their own sex was very different.

In the early 1800’s homosexuality between men was outlawed in England and remained so until the 1960’s.

At that time it was punishable by death, as it was in many other countries. The habit of bundling male homosexuals at the foot of the pyre when despatching a heretic, “to make a fire foul enough for a witch to burn on” remains the origin of the American term “faggot”.

Even writing an article like this could have had me locked up.

Anne stood proud against the people who disapproved of the way she looked and acted. Whilst at the Dames School in Ripon she had been whipped daily, so from an early age she had understood the pain standing out from the crowd could cause. But Halifax, as a Yorkshire town at that time, was at the cusp of the Industrial Revolution and the Luddite Movement so there was much to be gained by being brave.

This female trailblazer was an expert in land and estate management at a time when women had few legal rights as landowners or business people. She was also a paradox in that, despite her liberalism in many areas, her attitude towards workers was traditional and she resented the working class radicalism that was demanding reform.

You can imagine she rubbed a fair few folk up the wrong way.

Anne was never considered rich but her exploits allowed her to travel, which eventually became her undoing. In 1840 on an expedition to the Caucasian Mountains, she was bitten by a tick from which she contracted a fever and died on the 22nd September of that year. Her body was embalmed, brought back and buried in Halifax Minster by her partner Ann Walker. Let’s fast forward. You’ll see why.

Sally Wainwright recently revealed she’s researching into the life of Amy Johnson, the aviatrix who became the first female to fly from England to Australia. She achieved this remarkable journey in a second-hand de Havilland DH.60 Gipsy Moth biplane in 1930. “Jason” is now preserved in the Science Museum in London.

From Hull in East Yorkshire, Amy died aged 37 when her Airspeed Oxford was reputedly shot down over the Thames Estuary by friendly fire on 5 January 1941.

Amy was married and divorced and, although firmly heterosexual, not unlike Anne Lister in her febrile determination to succeed as a woman with a strong Yorkshire backbone in a world full of male dominance.

I can feel another TV series/book coming our way. I must ring my agent.

You read it here first.

Episode 1 of Gentleman Jack can be viewed on BBC1 on Sunday 19 May 2019. Click here to watch a quick trailer