True story of for­bid­den les­bian love from Geor­gian era brought to life in BBC drama

The Sunday Telegraph - - News - By Anita Singh ARTS AND EN­TER­TAIN­MENT EDITOR

SINCE the days of Brid­get Jones’s Di­ary, pub­lish­ers have been on the look­out for con­fes­sional tales of young women nav­i­gat­ing their way through the joys and ag­o­nies of love and sex.

The Se­cret Di­aries of Miss Anne Lis­ter is the lat­est to hit the shelves: an in­spir­ing real-life ac­count of a busi­ness­woman who has a string of les­bian af­fairs be­fore “mar­ry­ing” her part­ner in a same-sex cer­e­mony.

But this mod­ern-sound­ing story is not from the 21st cen­tury. Lis­ter lived in Geor­gian Eng­land and her di­aries were hid­den from view for more than two cen­turies, with the con­tents con­sid­ered too risqué to see the light of day.

They were dis­cov­ered 30 years ago by a lo­cal his­to­rian and are now be­ing re-is­sued as a Vi­rago Mod­ern Clas­sic to co­in­cide with a BBC One drama­ti­sa­tion of Lis­ter’s life.

The eight-part cos­tume drama Gen­tle­man Jack stars Su­ranne Jones as the epony­mous heroine and is a co­pro­duc­tion with the US broad­caster HBO. It is writ­ten by Sally Wain­wright, whose pre­vi­ous cred­its in­clude Happy Val­ley.

Film­ing has just fin­ished and the se­ries will be out next year. Its re­lease on both sides of the At­lantic will bring Lis­ter’s story to an in­ter­na­tional au­di­ence and looks set to turn the di­aries into a best­seller.

They are edited by He­lena Whit­bread, who came across them in a lo­cal ar­chive in Hal­i­fax, West Yorks. Be­gin­ning in 1806, they ran to four mil­lion words and the most per­sonal en­tries were writ­ten in a code that com­bined sym­bols, num­bers and Greek let­ters.

“That trig­gered my cu­rios­ity. I thought, what is this woman do­ing, why did she have to write in code?” Whit­bread said.

Born in 1791, Lis­ter in­her­ited Shib­den Hall, in Hal­i­fax, from an un­cle and com­bined run­ning the es­tate and a lo­cal col­liery with trav­el­ling around Europe, be­com­ing the first woman to climb sev­eral peaks in the Pyre­nees.

She had ro­mances with fel­low pupils at board­ing school and went on to live openly as a les­bian, nick­named “Gen­tle­man Jack” by lo­cals. She even­tu­ally set­tled down with a wealthy heiress, Ann Walker, ex­chang­ing vows in a church cer­e­mony in 1834. They lived to­gether un­til Lis­ter’s death in 1840.

The di­aries were de­coded by the last in­hab­i­tant of Shib­den Hall, John Lis­ter, and his friend Arthur Bur­rell. So scan­dalised was Bur­rell by their con­tents that he in­sisted they be burnt, but Lis­ter in­stead hid them be­hind a panel.

They were found in the 1930s, when own­er­ship of the house passed to the lo­cal coun­cil, but were not seen fit for pub­lic con­sump­tion un­til Whit­bread be­gan her work. Lis­ter called her ordinary writ­ing “plain­hand” and her code “crypt­hand”. The de­cod­ing re­vealed that when Lis­ter wrote “x” it was a ref­er­ence to an or­gasm.

Whit­bread ex­plained: “All the mun­dane things about get­ting up and go­ing about her day were in plain­hand, and then she would write some­thing in the mar­gin like ‘Mar­i­anne and I had three x’s’. Peo­ple at the time knew that she had re­la­tion­ships with women un­der the um­brella of ‘ro­man­tic friend­ship’. But peo­ple were not al­to­gether bam­boo­zled. “She dressed all in black, when white was the pre­dom­i­nant colour for young un­mar­ried women. Peo­ple would call after her in the street and that did make her de­spon­dent. But she had ter­rific courage.” Ear­lier this year, there was con­tro­versy when York Civic Trust erected a plaque at the church where Lis­ter and Walker made their vows, be­cause it re­ferred to her as “gen­der non­con­form­ing”. More than 2,500 peo­ple signed a pe­ti­tion in protest at the “les­bian era­sure”.

‘She dressed all in black, when white was the pre­dom­i­nant colour for young un­mar­ried women. She had ter­rific courage’

Su­ranne Jones and So­phie Run­dle as Anne Lis­ter and Ann Walker in ‘Gen­tle­man Jack’, above; the real Anne Lis­ter, left

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