If you don’t know who Anne Lister was, first of all you definitely should, and secondly here are the headlines: 19th century female landowner, businesswoman and traveller. Intelligent, proud, lesbian, good with the ladies. Married a woman in church. Kept a (partially coded) daily journal going into explicit, and sometimes fabulously tedious, detail about her life and loves. Lister is the subject of the 8-part BBC/HBO TV drama that aired in the UK from 19 May to 7 July 2019 (and in the US from 22 April to 10 June).
It was only a few weeks before Gentleman Jack aired on TV in the UK that I became aware that Anne Lister had even existed, let alone how singular and remarkable she was. I was scrolling through social media and came across Rebecca Woods’ article on BBC News ‘The Life and Loves of Anne Lister.’ Fast forward 14 weeks and I’ve read 7 books on Anne Lister (the only 7 currently in publication), various academic articles, am a member of 6 Gentleman Jack/Anne Lister groups on social media and have been spending upwards of four hours a day (most of the time that I’m not at work or asleep) transcribing Anne Lister’s original journals and making them available to read on my blog (iknowmyownheart.co.uk).
Obsessed? Yes. But I’m far from the only one to have found myself a worshiper at the temple of Lister. Why is it that so many, particularly among the LGBT+ community (although not exclusively), have become so enthralled and enamoured of this historical figure? Aside from the obvious attractions of Suranne Jones in Gentleman Jack, what is fuelling the Anne Lister phenomenon?
By way of investigation I put out a question on my social media: ‘I’m struck by how Anne Lister’s story (in Gentleman Jack and her journals) has profoundly affected so many of us. Her determination to be true to her ‘god-given nature’ has inspired us. An inclusive, supportive fandom has grown up too. So… what does Anne Lister mean to you?’
The responses where overwhelming and beautiful.
‘I see so much of myself in her… her perseverance, despite the hurt and rejection from less strong women and in the face of a hostile public, to be her authentic self… No hiding through fashion or faux marriage… our shared instinct to maintain optimism in the face of extreme rejection… Fashion sense. Dapper treatment of femmes…’ (Akiva Penaloza, @iamkeevz)
I was really struck by how, in particular the dapper, top-hatted, hand-kissing Anne Lister we see on Gentleman Jack, loving the ladies, striding round the countryside and going down coal mines, gave people the sense that a person like them was being seen and loved within the mainstream. As well as being a lover of ladies, declaring ‘I love, & only love, the fairer sex & thus beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any other love than theirs,’ (Anne Lister, 7 February 18211) Anne Lister was also a woman who was masculine-of-centre.
Lisa Dearnley-Davison said this on Facebook:
‘I feel like I found someone like me. I’ve never conformed, didn’t want to do girlie things, railed against wearing dresses and skirts… My entire life I’ve felt different, like I didn’t fit. I don’t feel so very different anymore.’
Lisa Smart @LovingLousbian) echoed this, saying ‘Anne[‘s story] is the often ignored butch’s story.’ The real Anne Lister was herself conscious that she was different and felt like she didn’t fit. On 28 June 1818 she confided in her journal:
‘The people generally remark, as I pass along, how much I am like a man. I think they did it more than usual this evening. At the top of Cunnery Lane, as I went, three men said, as usual, ‘That’s a man’ & one axed [sic] ‘Does your cock stand?’ I know not how it is but I feel low this evening.’2
Despite feeling hurt by the stares and whispers she was mostly defiant in the face of her critics and seemed to have had a very healthy amount of self-esteem, congratulating herself on 4 October 1820, ‘Yet my manners are certainly peculiar, not all masculine but rather softly gentleman-like. I know how to please girls.’3 Anne Lister’s self-regard brings us on to the next reason people have been so affected by her story.
‘Many situations in lesbian life and the way she dealt with them resonated with me very deeply, and her unshaken strength of purpose and confidence in herself made me feel the same… The conference I was attending had intimidated me quite a lot in previous editions, but this time, every morning I would get up, put on black, dapper clothes, and walk down the street with the confidence of someone who’s on top of the world. Not only that, but Anne Lister made me feel at ease at last with the butch part of me that I had always, and unsuccessfully, tried to disguise.’ (Juliana Marques, Rio de Janeiro)
Lisa E (@quafftide) shared with me that she wishes she’d read this part of a letter from Anne Lister to Ann Walker (the woman she was courting) on the subject of pride when she was a young woman:
‘A proper respect for public opinion is due from all, but it is best shown by paying a proper respect to ourselves, and that is always difficult under circumstances which seem equivocal. You have made up your mind – you therefore have, or ought to have, courage to avow it.’ (12 March 18344)
Despite the prevailing opinions of the time not being particularly homo-friendly, Anne Lister believed that her sexuality was ‘god-given’ and natural. She often explained this to women amongst her circle, saying:
‘I urged in my own defence the strength of natural feeling & instinct, for so I might call it, as I had always had the same turn from infancy. That it had been known to me, as it were, by inclination. That I had never varied & no effort on my part had been able to counteract it. That the girls liked me & had always liked me.’ (Anne Lister, 13 November 18165)
Anne’s confidence in her own innate rightness has had a profound effect on gay people today. One person wrote on Facebook that Anne Lister had helped them ‘clear some shame about being gay.’ Terri Dal wrote ‘For me I’m 62 and will still say partner when I’m talking about Fiona. After GJ I now say wife.’
As well as feeling represented by Anne Lister, and enabled to value themselves, the other big theme I came across within the fandom was Lister Sisters (and Misters) feeling inspired to emulate various of Lister’s admirable qualities. One Twitter mother (#hellomynameiskelly @bullimore70) tweeted this adorable photograph of her daughter, who went to an event at her school where she had to go as someone brave dressed as Anne Lister. Why Anne Lister? ‘She helped me be who I want to be. It’s good to be a tomboy! She has made it possible for me to be a Police Officer when I grow up.’
I love these two extracts from Lister’s journal where she describes herself as a brave tomboy child:
‘A great pickle. ‘Scaped my maid & got away from the workpeople… When my mother thought I was safe I was running out in an evening. Saw curious scenes, bad women, etc.’ (Anne Lister, 13 November 18246)
‘I told her I was a curious genius and had been so from my cradle. She wondered what I was when little. I said, a very great pickle. Sent to school very early because they could do nothing with me at home, and whipped every day, except now & then in the holidays, for two years.’ (Anne Lister, 10 November 18197)
Other qualities that people admired and wanted to emulate were Anne’s ability to bounce back after romantic disappointment (a woman on Facebook described ‘…a clearing of the fog that had surrounded me for 8 years after my wife of 10 years left me for another.’); religious observance (Dianne Hunter (@dianne_hunter1) said that Lister had ‘brought me back to the church… She saw no difference between her sexuality and participating in establishment religious observance,’); and ‘indomitable spirit,’ (Laura Daniel, @LauraMDaniel). Here’s Anne Lister’s account of her ‘indomitable spirit’ in action:
‘Awoke last night by the dogs’ barking & the cook told me 3 shabby-looking men were about the house. Got up, charged the pistol to be ready & had scarce got into bed when roused again by the dog. Followed the cook into her room (the Green Room), put my head out of the window &, seeing 2 men leaning against the wall below, declared I would blast their brains out if they did not immediately go about their business.’ (Anne Lister, 23 August 18188)
Rebecca Paulus (Facebook) has found inspiration to begin overcoming a lifetime of shyness, ‘I got more daring and self-confidence… She is my true hero! She gives the feeling that I don’t have to be afraid or ashamed of anything!’ Anne Lister gave this advice to a young woman who envied her courage: ‘This, I said, like all other qualifications of the mind, might be gained at last by practice…’ (Anne Lister, 13 September 18189). Inspirational or what?!
There were so many other qualities that Lister Sisters (and Misters) admired, but the last one I will mention here is Anne’s sense of humour (although Marian chapman (@mazerscamp) was not sure whether or not ‘Anne was conscious of [the fact that it was funny] when she was writing’). One of my favourite Anne Lister funnies is this:
‘Went down the north parade & sat ½ hour at Cross-hills. The whole kit of them at home & vulgar as ever. Miss Caroline’s head like a porcupine.’ (Anne Lister, 26 December 181810)
So, as Anne Lister’s story is making people feel represented, proud and inspired (as well as delighting historians), it’s no wonder she’s created such a big wave, and no wonder such a passionate fandom has grown up. Before I stop writing I guess I should say something about what Anne Lister means to me… After a couple of years of struggling with a fatiguing health issue, in my post-Lister life I find I have focus, enthusiasm and energy again. Wow! Even more ‘wow’ I went on some dates, after years of not doing so because I was too scared, and met a mind-blowingly wonderful woman. It didn’t work out, but hey ho! I still have Anne Lister.
Extracts from Anne Lister’s journals from the following sources:
Whitbread, Helena (2010) The Secret Diaries Of Miss Anne Lister: Vol. 1: I Know My Own Heart: The Inspiration for Gentleman Jack. Kindle Edition (extracts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9 and 10)
Whitbread, Helena (2015) No Priest but Love: The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, the Inspiration for Gentleman Jack. Kindle Edition. (extract 6)
Choma, Anne, Gentleman Jack: The Real Anne Lister, Penguin, 2019 (extract 4)
Interested in transcribing Anne Lister’s original diaries yourself? They’re available online for free at the West Yorkshire Archive Service website. If you need a hand getting started, check out the guide I put together here: https://iknowmyownheart.co.uk/category/the-real-anne-lister-blog/how-to-read-anne-lister-original-diaries/