Gentleman Jack has been such a resounding success that BBC/HBO have already commissioned the second series – welcome news indeed. It’s a satisfying period drama but with a modern twist in both its subject and approach: tantalisingly, the wealthy landowner in search of a wife is a woman; and playfully, this thoroughly modern woman breaks the fourth wall, allowing her to communicate directly with a contemporary audience. Writer-director Sally Wainwright and Suranne Jones in the lead role have brought Anne Lister thrillingly to life.
When, over thirty years ago, Virago first published The Secret Diaries of Anne Lister (then under the title I Know My Own Heart) the book caused a sensation: it was hailed as the Rosetta stone of lesbian history. Helena Whitbread had spent five years transcribing the journals, which were written in code; until then, Anne Lister’s lesbianism had been suppressed or only hinted at. This this was the first time her story had been told. Jeanette Winterson demonstrates precisely why their publication was, and is, so important in this wonderful article:
‘It’s ironic that Anne Lister should re-surface in 1988, when the Thatcher government passed the infamous Section 28, banning public bodies from “promoting” homosexuality … I discovered how tough it was to try and live honestly and honourably as a gay woman in Britain … The diaries gave me courage. I felt connection.’ (http://www.jeanettewinterson.com/journalism/about-anne-lister/)
Anne Lister defied the role of nineteenth-century womanhood: she was bold, fiercely independent, a landowner, entrepreneur, industrialist and traveller who lived openly as a lesbian. At a time when women weren’t expected to admit their sexuality, Lister wrote candidly about who she would seduce, marking her orgasms as Xs in her diary. Learning that such a woman existed in Georgian England, continually pushing at the boundaries of society’s expectation in so many ways, makes Lister a person we can relate to. This is not history rewritten – she is not a fictional character in a novel – she lived, and she lived life staunchly on her own terms. She is inspirational because she was a trailblazer. Same-sex marriage has only been legal in England these past few years, but Anne and her lover made vows and exchanged rings at Holy Trinity Church in York nearly 200 years ago (the site recently saw the first blue plaque to be encircled by the LGBT+ rainbow).
Thirty years on, there is a new generation who will find inspiration and courage from reading Anne Lister’s diaries.
Now published as a Virago Modern Classic.
Also available in ebook, No Priest But Love: the second volume of Anne Lister’s diaries.
Watch the trailer for Gentleman Jack here: