In Depth

Gentleman Jack: inside the real diaries of Anne Lister

New BBC One drama tells the story of Britain’s first modern lesbian

A new BBC TV drama called Gentleman Jack will tell the story of Britain’s first openly gay woman, Anne Lister.

Born in 1791, Lister lived with a series of female partners and even held an unofficial wedding in a church. Played by Doctor Foster’s Suranne Jones, Lister wrote diaries detailing her relationships and dealings with members of high society.

In 2011, her secret diaries were decoded, offering a glimpse of her life. Here is everything you need to know.

Who was Anne Lister?

Lister was a wealthy landowner and aristocrat who lived in Yorkshire at the turn of the 19th century.

Despite having had several relationships with women including her commitment to heiress Ann Walker in an unofficial marriage ceremony, she was a respected member of society - unusual in an era when homosexuality was taboo.

Admired for her business acumen, she left Walker a sizeable estate when she died.

In addition to income from agricultural tenancy, Lister's finances came from property, shares in the canal and railway industries, mining and stone quarries.

What do her diaries reveal?

During her life, Lister wrote copious diary entries chronicling her life and love affairs, which came to four million words in all. They began in 1806 as scraps of paper, written in secret code to her first love, Eliza Raine, whom she met as a pupil at Manor House School in York.

Most of the entries are encrypted in a code she and Raine had devised, combining the Greek alphabet, Zodiac signs, punctuation and mathematical symbols.

Her writing often graphically described her lust for women. “Could not sleep last night. Dozing, hot & disturbed… a violent longing for a female companion came over me. Never remember feeling it so painfully before… It was absolute pain to me,” she wrote in one entry. In others, she described erotic encounters involving “kisses”, her euphemism for orgasms.

Her diaries reveal that she was aware of her sexuality decades before the word lesbian first came into use. “I know my own heart & I know men. I am not made like any other I have seen. I dare believe myself to be different from any others who exist,” she wrote.

Often referred to as Gentleman Jack due to her transgression of gender norms and predilection for men’s clothing, she also used her diaries to express her distate for female clothing, recounting how she and her partner “talked of... my sensitiveness of anything that reminded me of my petticoats”.

Lister died of fever on 22 September 1840 at 49 and is buried in St Anne’s church, in West Yorkshire. 

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