The World’s a Bit Gayer Thanks to Gentleman Jack

In matters of representation, representation matters.

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Suranne Jones as Anne Lister in Gentleman Jack, about to marry Ann Walker in the first documented marriage between two women.

When Anne Lister wrote in her journal about what she did, who she saw, and the news of the day, she wrote in “plain hand,” her normal handwriting. But when she wrote about her relationships with her lovers–always women, sometimes married to men–she switched to “crypt hand,” a code she developed to make the intimate details impossible for snoopers to read.

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A page of Lister’s journal, written in “crypt hand.”

That kind of caution was required for a woman who was actively courting and sleeping with women in 19th century Halifax, when the word “lesbian” didn’t even exist yet.

I’m on my third rewatch of HBO’s Gentleman Jack, Sally Wainwright’s series inspired by Lister. I couldn’t be happier and gayer for it. Who knew that someone like Lister existed almost two centuries ago?! I’m so grateful to Wainright for introducing me to Lister, an extraordinary woman whose life and diaries are full of historical delights.

Lister was a landowner, entrepreneur, and traveler. She wore all-black clothing, joined workers on her property digging ditches and building walls because she enjoyed manual labor, power-walked miles on a daily basis, openly competed with and challenged businessmen, and endured constant staring and comments about her unladylike appearance and habits. Because of her masculinity, people called her Jack. Her longtime lover Mariana was embarrassed to be seen with her.

“Nature played a challenging trick on me, didn’t she. Putting a bold spirit like mine in this vessel in which I’m obliged to wear frills and petticoats. Well, I refuse to be cowed by it.” — Gentleman Jack’s Anne Lister

Thus begins Lister’s passionate and sometimes heartbreaking romantic life, with women who mostly leave her for (or ask her to endure) their husbands.

Thus also begins Lister’s voluminous journals. Fifteen-year-old Anne started with the word “Eliza” and wrote 7,772 pages containing millions of words in 27 volumes, over the course of 34 years.

It took Helena Whitbread five years to completely decode Lister’s “crypt hand” and uncover the most candid and private details about her relationships–including things like how many orgasms her lover and she had the night before, and how long they took. She timed them! (In fact, the diaries were hidden so long because the sexual content in them was so explicit. How and why it took them 150 years to get fully decoded is a fascinating story and and of itself.)

“I love and only love the fairer sex and thus beloved by them in turn. My heart revolts from any other love than theirs.”

— Anne Lister’s journal, 1821

Lister and Ann Walker’s was the first recorded same-sex marriage. It wasn’t legal, of course, or even spoken aloud to anyone in Holy Trinity Church, where it took place Easter Sunday in 1834. Today, a rainbow-edged plaque at the church acknowledges the union.

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The plaque commemorating Lister & Walker’s marriage at Holy Trinity Church in York.

Lister is considered the first “modern lesbian,” because she understood who she was. She sought to create the life she wanted with a woman she loved, at a time when the very notion of a woman not needing men was heretical.

Jeanette Winterson puts it well:

That sense of self, and self-awareness, is what makes her modern to us. She was a woman exercising conscious choice. She controlled her cash and her body. At a time when women had to marry, or be looked after by a male relative, and when all their property on marriage passed to their husband, Anne Lister not only dodged the traps of being female, she set up a liaison with another woman that enhanced her own wealth and left both of them free to live as they wished.

When my wife and I got married in 2001, I thought we were ahead of our time–it wasn’t even legal! But Anne Lister was the true trailblazer, and her courage and authenticity made my life possible.

Authenticity is the best part of Sally Wainwright’s Gentleman Jack. The show script includes direct quotes from Lister’s diaries. It was filmed at Shibden Hall, and the showrunners recreated certain rooms on a set when the old building’s floors couldn’t take the weight of the cameras.

The costumes were also inspired by specific pieces of clothing Lister mentioned in her diaries, and her costume in particular was based on the few portraits that exist of her. (There’s one notable exception where the show took creative license: Lister didn’t actually wear a top hat.)

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Portrait of Anne Lister circa 1830

But most of all, especially the way Wainwright tells it, Lister’s experience resonates so strongly with women who knew they loved women from a young age. My favorite genre of Gentleman Jack fandom are scene captions that connect Lister’s gay and gender non-conforming experience of two centuries ago to today.

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My favorite fan video so far: Behold Gentleman Jack’s Sheer Lesbian Energy

Even in an age of some great LGBTQ characters on TV and in film, Gentleman Jack still makes me feel seen, represented, and preceded like never before.

If you too want to fall down the delightful rabbit hole that is Lister’s remarkable life, have some links:

Happy Pride.

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Technology, culture, representation, and self-improvement. Once upon a time I started Lifehacker.

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