Gentleman Jack: All you need to know about Sunday night TV heroine Anne Lister

PUBLISHED: 10:49 21 May 2019 | UPDATED: 11:28 21 May 2019

Gentleman Jack -  Anne Lister (SURANNE JONES) - (C) Lookout Point/HBO - Photographer: Jay Brooks

Gentleman Jack - Anne Lister (SURANNE JONES) - (C) Lookout Point/HBO - Photographer: Jay Brooks

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Astute businesswoman, mountaineer, globetrotter, prolific diarist, a proud lesbian during a time when it was difficult simply to be a woman – Anne ‘Gentleman Jack’ Lister was one of the 19th century’s most intriguing characters. Find out more about BBC1’s new heroine. CONTAINS SPOILERS.

Gentleman Jack - Marian Lister (GEMMA WHELAN) - (C) Lookout Point/HBO - Photographer: Matt SquireGentleman Jack - Marian Lister (GEMMA WHELAN) - (C) Lookout Point/HBO - Photographer: Matt Squire

The BBC's new Sunday night drama tells the extraordinary life of history's first modern lesbian whose nickname was Gentleman Jack.

In her diaries, Anne Lister recorded absolutely everything, from her breakfast to her most intimate liaisons and her plans to make a fortune from the rich seams of coal that ran under her family's estate in Halifax.

A famous seductress, what she sought above all else was long-lasting love, a marriage such as those she saw men and women entering into - and she went after her dream with impressive zeal.

As the series continues on BBC1, we will discover whether or not Anne finds a wife in a time when women were expected to be seen and not heard and definitely weren't expected to seek out a same-sex union.

Gentleman Jack -  Anne Lister (SURANNE JONES) - (C) Lookout Point/HBO - Photographer: Matt SquireGentleman Jack - Anne Lister (SURANNE JONES) - (C) Lookout Point/HBO - Photographer: Matt Squire

Who was the real Anne Lister?

A Yorkshire landowner, diariest and traveller, Anne Lister is credited as being one of the first women who was entirely unapologetic about loving other women and as such, is often called "the first modern lesbian" due to her complete acceptance of her sexual orientation. Born in 1791, her childless Uncle James and Aunt Anne left her their home, Shibden Hall, after their death in 1836.

Gentleman Jack - Vere Hobart (JODHI MAY), Anne Lister (SURANNE JONES) - (C) Lookout Point/HBO - Photographer: Matt SquireGentleman Jack - Vere Hobart (JODHI MAY), Anne Lister (SURANNE JONES) - (C) Lookout Point/HBO - Photographer: Matt Squire

How come Anne inherited the family's riches?

Anne was one of six children and the eldest daughter. Her four brothers all died leaving Anne and Marian. Anne was intellectually bright and was sent away to school in York, where she flourished.

Gentleman Jack - Ann Walker (SOPHIE RUNDLE), Anne Lister (SURANNE JONES) - (C) Lookout Point/HBO - Photographer: Matt SquireGentleman Jack - Ann Walker (SOPHIE RUNDLE), Anne Lister (SURANNE JONES) - (C) Lookout Point/HBO - Photographer: Matt Squire

When did Anne first fall in love?

At school, she met a girl called Eliza Raine and the teenagers shared an attic bedroom where they developed a friendship and love affair. They also made up a code so that they could speak to each other without anyone realising what they were saying - Anne would go on to use the code in her diary for the rest of her life. Eliza's intense jealousy eventually put Anne off and she went to seek pastures new, leaving Eliza heartbroken - she was committed to a mental asylum for the rest of her life and there have been speculations that she may have been the model for Mrs Rochester, since Charlotte Bronte lived and wrote not far away.

And then?

At the age of 19, Anne met Isabella "Tib" Norcliffe and the pair had a relationship which eventually fizzled out, much to the latter's disappointment. Isabella was distraught that Anne didn't choose her as a life partner and even more so when she introduced her to M, or Marianna Belcombe, played by Lydia Leonard in this version of the story. The pair had a passionate affair that lasted more than 15 years and Anne hoped that she and M could marry, but M was unable to shake off convention and eventually married a man. The affair, however, continued and the pair would meet whenever they could - this was despite the fact that M passed on a veneral disease that her husband Charles had caught from a servant to Anne and she was infected all her life.

Tell me about Anne's diaries?

Anne wrote 26 volumes of diaries and was famous for noting down every single thing that happened to her, from her breakfast to how she had dissected the head of a woman in Paris in a biology lesson. Partly written in code, or crypt, the diaries contain explicit accounts of her sexual encounters. In all, there are around five million words in her expansive diaries

What did she call her younger sister Marian in her diaries?

Cock of the dunghill.

How did people treat Anne?

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Anne Lister was no shrinking violet: she often wore black clothes and dressed in a masculine manner to the point where she earned the nickname Gentleman Jack. In her diaries, she speaks of how working class people would jeer at her but the upper class were anxious to invite her to dinner, although they would all be nervous if she took a particular interest in one of their daughters. Her no-nonsense manner meant she was treated with respect by most business leaders.

What happened in Hastings?

Another doomed love affair came to a crashing end - after two years of trying to persuade Vere Hobart to fall in love with her and thought that she was beginning to gain ground but then Vere entertained a man friend who then proposed. Anne was devastated when the object of her affection accepted and returned home to Shibden where she met…

Ann Walker - the woman who changed Anne's life

In truth, the pair had met before 1836, but Ann hadn't made a great impression on Lister when she encountered her in 1822 and called her "a stupid, vulgar girl indeed". But fast forward a decade and another meeting, Anne changed her mind and wondered "shall I try and make up to her?" It helped that Ann had a sizeable fortune in the form of the Lightcliffe estate which she and her sister inherited following the death of her parents and brother.


Reader, she married her. In 1834, the pair exchanged rings, wrote each other into their wills and "married" each other by taking communion together on Easter Sunday in a church in York. Ann moved to Shibden Hall and used some of her cash to make improvements to the hall and its grounds and the pair lived happily together - Anne even ended her ongoing relationship with M.

So life was good?

It was. Anne and Ann travelled together and were pretty happy, although the fervor of the early days did begin to evaporate. Not everyone was overjoyed by their union, but often that had more to do with coal than sexuality. When Anne took over the running of the mines on her land, in direct competition with male colliery owners, effigies of herself and her wife were burnt in Halifax. But Ann and Anne didn't care, because they were together…until…

The end:

The pair travelled extensively: to the Pyrenees, Azerbaijan and to the Russian Empire and were at Koutais, now Georgia, when Anne became ill with a fever, probably typhus, and died in 1840. A heartbroken Ann arranged to have her wife's body embalmed and returned to Yorkshire, a trip that took an arduous six months by ship and coach. Twenty years later, Ann died in the same asylum that Lister's first lover had been committed to.

What happened next?

Decades after her death, one of Lister's descendants, John Lister, was poring over Anne's diaries with a friend, schoolteacher Arthur Burrell. The pair, who were reading by candlelight, used an uncovered scrap of her code to crack the text and were so shocked by what they read that Arthur suggested that John should burn the diaries. Thankfully, John realised that what he had was an important record of his relative's life and instead hid the diaries behind Shibden Hall's wood paneling where they remained until his death in the 1930s. The hall was transferred to public ownership, the diaries were found and Arthur reluctantly offered his copy of the code…the rest, as they say, was history.

* Gentleman Jack is on BBC1 at 9pm on Sundays.

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