Carmella reviews Gentleman Jack: a Biography of Anne Lister by Angela Steidele

Gentleman Jack by Angela Steidele

Earlier this year, HBO and the BBC treated us to Suranne Jones swaggering across the screen in butch Victorian get-up, playing the character of Anne Lister. The first season of Gentleman Jack follows just a segment of Anne’s life starting in 1832, as she woos her future life-partner, Ann Walker.

While I loved the show, it left me wanting to know more. What was Anne Lister really like? Who was she before 1832, and how does her story end? This led me to pick up Angela Steidele’s biography (also titled Gentleman Jack, which was an insulting nickname for Anne used by the townspeople of Halifax) to find out all about her for myself.

In case you haven’t come across her before, Anne Lister was a Regency era landowner from West Yorkshire. She’s now remembered as ‘the first modern lesbian’, mostly thanks to the extensive diaries she left behind, in which she recorded everything from her opinions on the pressing political issues of the time to the minutiae of everyday life – and, encoded in her secret ‘crypt hand’, explicit details of her numerous sexual affairs with other women.

These diaries run to over four million words, but thankfully Steidele has condensed them into a very readable 338 pages for those of us who don’t quite have enough time to manage them in full! Gentleman Jack follows Anne’s life in chronological order, separated into chapters named after her girlfriends – which is an entertaining touch.

As a history fan, I found the delve into the life of an unconventional Regency woman compelling, and welcomed the chance to learn more about the era. One of my favourite sections was the story of Anne’s first girlfriend, Eliza Raine. Eliza was the mixed race child of an English man and an Indian woman, born in Madras and raised in Yorkshire. When the Regency era is so often portrayed as exclusively white (think of most adaptations of Austen and the Brontës), hearing Eliza’s story is proof that this wasn’t the case.

Ultimately, it wasn’t a happy ending for Eliza, who was committed to a mental asylum. Steidele even suggests that Eliza may have been a model for Charlotte Brontë’s character Mrs Rochester – the ‘madwoman in the attic’ of Jane Eyre – as the asylum was not far from the Brontës’ home in Haworth.

Also very interesting is the final part of the biography, following Anne and Ann’s travels around Europe and Russia in 1839-40. Anne’s travel diary gives a fascinating description of every stopping point as it was in the mid-19th Century. It also reveals that Anne was impatient with Ann, argued with her frequently, pushed her into travelling further than she wanted, and even flirted with other women in front of her!

During the trip, Anne developed a fatal fever. She died in Georgia in 1840, at the age of 49, and Ann dutifully returned her body to be buried in Halifax.

What I enjoy most about the biography is this ‘warts and all’ approach to Anne’s life. It doesn’t shy away from Anne’s flaws; as Steidele puts it, “Anne Lister was a beast of a woman” – and all the more interesting for it. She lied to and manipulated her lovers, didn’t have much regard for other people’s feelings, and was a staunch Tory (which counts as a flaw in my book). At the same time, she was a remarkably intelligent and competent businesswoman, extensively well-read, well-travelled, and had a curious scientific mind.

Even when you disagree with Anne you can’t help but like her, and you can understand the allure that drew so many women to her. As Anne herself put it in 1816, “the girls liked me & had always liked me”. And we always will like her, I’m sure!

Casey reviews I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister 1791-1840 edited by Helena Whitbread

I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister 1791-1840, edited by Helena Whitbread

            The Diaries of Anne Lister is definitely the oldest “lesbian” book I’ve read to date.  I’m putting lesbian in quotation marks because what is actually the most fascinating things about the diary is how Anne Lister explores her attraction to women and her sexual identity in a time before sexuality was such a defining characteristic for our identities and before the word lesbian even existed with our contemporary understanding of it (if anyone as nerdy as me is wondering, “lesbian” was first used in 1890 as “female homosexual,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary—so it’s really a relatively new word!).  Back to Anne Lister: she was an upper-class Englishwoman living in Halifax and Shibden Hall, West Yorkshire in the early 1800s who kept a very comprehensive diary of her life, a significant amount of which was written in a code that Lister herself had created.  This diary was discovered in the early 20th century by John Lister, the last inhabitant of Shibden Hall; he was advised to burn the diaries when the code was cracked—isn’t this a great lesbian detective story?  Fortunately he didn’t (thanks John, for saving an incredible piece of lesbian herstory!) and historian Helena Whitbread has published two editions of Lister’s diaries—the first one in 1988, the version that I’ve picked up.

What is often strange and amusing about this diary is how Lister will list off banal details of her life, such as that she had “most excellent ¼ hind lamb, cold, potatoes & kidney beans” for supper and calculated her finances with a balance of “ninety pounds, twelve shillings, & twopence three farthings,” alongside shockingly matter-of-fact statements about her sexual and romantic relationships with women.  If you picked this book up somehow not knowing, you might miss Lister’s astonishing assertion “I love, & only love, the fairer sex & thus beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any other love than theirs.”  Having declared her sexual identity, Lister meets another masculine queer woman, Miss Pickford, and wonders “Are there more Miss Pickfords in the world than I have ever thought of?”  She discovers, in other words, that she is not alone in her sexuality and comes to terms with herself as different, but “natural.”  She tries to deal with her lover Marianne’s internalized homophobia.  She flirts with neighbourhood women.  Actually, Lister is kind of a dog; she juggles a few women at once throughout her diary, and writes of one woman that “She looked very pretty … She seems innocent & unknowing as to the ways of the world.  I wonder if I can ever, or shall ever, mould her to my purpose.”  Oh my, to what purpose is that, Anne?

Another fascinating issue in the book is Lister’s gender.  In fact, I began to wonder the farther I read into the diary if she might identify as a trans man if she were alive today.  She often, for example, is read as a man in public and is uncomfortable with women’s clothing.  She writes shockingly at one point: “Foolish fancying about Caroline Greenwood, meeting her on Skircoat Moor, taking her into a shed there is there & being connected with her.  Supposing myself in men’s clothes & having a penis, tho’ nothing more.”  What does she mean by this?  Why is Marianne’s pet name for Lister “Fred” in their letters?  Would Lister have preferred to pass as a man?  Or was conceptualizing herself as Marianne’s “husband” the only way she had of expressing her desire for a female partner?  The diary doesn’t answer these questions, obviously, but they are interesting ones to keep in mind while reading it.

If you can take Lister’s classist, snobbish qualities in historical context—her attempts at social climbing and her insulting the “vulgarity” of those socially beneath her are pretty awful—the diary is quite a fun read.  I found the contrast between the old proper British English and some of the raunchy details—Lister in bed with different women, Lister attempting to cure her venereal disease—hilarious.  The other element of the book that I really enjoyed was the unlikely feeling of kinship I felt with Lister despite the huge differences between us.  I came away from the diary with the sense that dyke or queer lives today are in some ways not so different than Lister’s.  For example, she records a visit to the Ladies of Llangollen, a known lesbian couple, wanting to find a kind of role model for herself and an eventual partner—so even in 1822 all the dykes knew each other! Lister’s declaration of her love for the “fair sex” echoes contemporary coming out and coming of age stories.  Her struggles with gender identity, homophobia, relationships, intimacy, and sex are definitely of her own time, but reading about them in Lister’s own voice really made them resonate for my time.