Author, historian and “Lister Sister” Anne Choma discusses the impact of Gentleman Jack on her life – and ours
BY ANNE CHOMA
It’s been 12 months now since Gentleman Jack first aired on British and American TV, catapulting the extraordinary life of Regency diarist and lesbian Anne Lister into the global mainstream. When I cast my mind back to the eve of transmission, I remember thinking how nervous I felt, and how I hoped that the audience would love and respect Lister just as much as I had done over the years. The same thought crossed my mind when I saw Suranne Jones dressed for the first time in Lister’s signature black pelisse. She looked magnificent. She was everything that I had imagined Anne Lister to be – charismatic, bewitching, almost other-worldly. The image took my breath away. But would viewers feel the same, I wondered?
While everyone involved in the production felt quietly confident that we had created something very special in Lister’s memory, in reality none of us could have predicted the massive success that Gentleman Jack was set to become, or just how passionately its eccentric heroine would capture the hearts and minds of the international lesbian community. Nobody could have ever imagined that just a year on from when the first episode was shown, that Lister’s home town would be playing host to hundreds of women from across the globe, gathering to celebrate her 229th birthday anniversary. This April, Halifax’s most famous daughter will be revered and “stanned” in a way like she never has been before. Almost two hundred years after her death, “Listermania”, to everyone’s surprise, is finally here.
It’s hard to know what Anne Lister would have made of her posthumous fame, though she once said to her high society friend Lady Stuart de Rothesay that she had no great “fondness of celebrity.” She wasn’t a publicity seeker, but her maverick behaviour often proved eye-catchingly and scandalously brazen – at least by 19th century standards. Her testing out of a treadmill in 1824 at the London’s Cold Bath Fields prison generated national attention, with newspapers from north to south eager to report what she had done. Her request to see for herself what the tool of torture felt like must have then seemed very odd. The London Times reported that she was of “foreign extraction”, as though unable to define just exactly who she was, or where she came from. While her eccentricities were well known and long recognised locally, serving as regular fodder for Halifax gossip and innuendo, not everyone knew how to react to this woman who not only looked odd, but who also asked to do weird things. In contemporary Georgian society there were echoes of what Lister herself was thinking about her own identity – “I am an enigma even to myself and I do excite my own curiosity.”
But it wasn’t all bad press, and certainly within her own social circle there was something of an emerging Lister fan base. Anne’s coterie of female friends formed an early version of the “Lister Sisters” that we recognise today in Gentleman Jack fan groups, albeit on a much reduced scale. Many of her friends and her lovers stayed devoted to her throughout her life, and it wasn’t uncommon for petty jealousies to surface if it was thought that one friend was being prioritised over another.
When Anne was living in Copenhagen in 1833, she wrote to her aunt saying that there had been talk of the people there “wishing to get hold” of her – wanting to court her attention and seek out her company. She responded by humouring them, spreading herself thinly, careful to show no obvious favouritism – “It never yet occurred to me to like any one person less because of liking another person more,” she once said. In reality, her careful manoeuvrings seemed to benefit herself more than it did others. Anne Lister was an accomplished social networker – a brilliant schmoozer who could beguile and entertain anybody she came into contact with. Even men were charmed in her company; perhaps on occasion a little too charmed for her liking. People who met her would always came away with some kind of opinion about her, be it a good one or bad one, but she could never be ignored.
As I write this, I’m thinking more about my own Anne Lister odyssey, which began over 25 years ago in the early 1990s. I remember my first visit to Shibden Hall as being a somewhat lonely affair. It was a damp, grey Saturday morning, and with no other visitors around I was able to wander around the rooms and corridors uninterrupted. I often describe that day as the day when Shibden and Anne Lister truly entered my soul, the defining moment when Anne’s story became an all-consuming and life-changing event for me.
Soon afterwards, I met Helena Whitbread, and then Sally Wainwright. It was Helena’s first book on Lister, I Know My Own Heart, that inspired me to go on and do my own research into Anne’s life. Helena and I eventually went to Paris together on an adventurous Anne Lister road-trip! It’s fair to say that I was an obsessed, hungry-for-information, Anne Lister acolyte. But in meeting Sally, I felt that I had met my true kindred spirit. Both of us were the same age, and both us were in awe of this remarkable Regency superwoman – a woman who looked like she might have just dropped through the ceiling from another planet under the weight of her own complexity and eccentricity.
I spent hours in the archives in Halifax, reading letters, trying to make sense of Lister’s scary writing in her diaries, and I continued to visit Shibden Hall whenever I got the opportunity. But it had always seemed a mystery to me why the Hall didn’t have more gay women visitors, and that it was even stranger that many more women hadn’t actually even heard of Anne Lister. Back then, Halifax’s Gentleman Jack wasn’t (or couldn’t be), celebrated in the way that she is now. This was a dark period in LGBTQI history, dominated by Aids and Clause 28 – the perfect breeding ground for fear, ignorance and rampant homophobia.
Lesbians, it seems, were scary people then too. I remember once being at Shibden and overhearing a conversation between a guide and a member of the public, with the former saying about Lister, “She liked the ladies you know, but we try not to talk about her if we can help it.” This was an era when some authors writing about Lister felt the need to add a caveat to their work, warning readers of the “sensitive” content, and about the “intimate, sexual” nature of Lister’s life. Thankfully times and attitudes have changed.
As we move closer to filming of Gentleman Jack series two, my thoughts return once again to the new generation of women whose lives in some way have been affected by Lister’s story. They are now telling their own stories, writing blogs, transcribing Anne’s diaries, producing artwork and animation. Women from 20 to 70 have something to say about Gentleman Jack, about Anne, and about themselves. Connections with people were all important to Anne Lister, and when I think of the growing fan-base today I think that this too is about people wanting to make connections with each other.
If Anne Lister taught us one thing, it was that in order to find personal contentment then we need to be able to think, feel and love in the way that we want to, in a way which feels natural to us. She taught us what it is to be human, how to consult your own happiness, and above all, how to have courage. Would she be proud if she could witness the sea-change in reaction to her life and writing now? I think so. And to the gay women who today have claimed her as their own, I think she would be echoing the same words once said of her – “Your life is valuable and a treasure to all your friends… There are few young women that can boast of the qualifications you possess… you are a treasure to all who know your worth.”
This article first appeared in the April 2020 issue of DIVA – grab your digital copy right here!