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