21 May 19
The Scottish Sun
THE racy antics of Suranne Jones in new drama Gentleman Jack have already got viewers hot under the collar, but the real story of Anne Lister is steamier than most can imagine.
When landowner Anne, played by Suranne in the series, was invited to stay at the stately home of some female friends of the family, she slept with three of the four women in the house within a few nights.
Anne Lister (Suranne Jones) romps with married lover Marianna (Lydia Leonard) in the BBC show
The 29-year-old’s latest conquests joined the hundreds of society wives and daughters she had bedded since her first lesbian encounter in the school attic at the age of 15 – which led to her lover ending up in a lunatic asylum.
Amazingly, the year of the house party was 1820, a time when homosexuality was illegal and lesbianism barely acknowledged.
But Anne – whose racy love life features in the BBC drama – was a skilled seducer of women.
She bedded society wives under their husbands’ noses, slept with virgins who were encouraged to share her bed as protection and had sex with almost every one of her friends.
The Yorkshire heiress – who dressed in masculine clothes and wore a locket containing pubic hair – also ‘married’ her lover Ann Walker in what is considered the first lesbian wedding, although it was not legally recognised.
A familiar figure in the streets around her West Yorkshire home of Shibden Hall, Anne was cruelly nicknamed Gentleman Jack by men who mocked her manly looks, low voice and downy upper lip.
Anne Lister always wore black and preferred masculine clothes to dresses
Anne Lister (Suranne Jones) kisses Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle) in the trailer for the show
One practical joker even placed an ad in the Leeds Mercury, claiming she was looking for a husband.
But she definitely had the last laugh, as women fell into her arms at an astounding rate – with every encounter and every orgasm recorded in her extensive, heavily coded diaries.
From school fling to lunatic asylum
Born in 1791, Anne was the second of six children of military man Jeremy Lister and wife Rebecca, but only she and her younger sister survived.
Dismissed by her mother as an “unmanageable tomboy” she was packed off to boarding school at seven, where she proved a relentlessly rebellious pupil.
In her teens, teachers tried to limit her desruptive influence by removing her from the dorm and putting her in an attic bedroom, which is when she began to record every waking thought in her diary.
Her life changed dramatically when 15-year-old Eliza Raine – the half-indian daughter of a British doctor – was sent to join her in the attic.
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Suranne Jones stars as Anne Lister in the BBC drama
The outcasts quickly became lovers and both recorded their sexual encounters with the word “felix” – the Latin word for “happy”.
During this time, Anne devised a complicated code for her explicit diary entries, meshing Greek, Latin, mathematical symbols, punctuation and the zodiac, and she believed it to be uncrackable.
Although Eliza was her first love, Anne was keen to move on when the pair left school and so ended the relationship.
Eliza was distraught, writing to her lover, “You can little know what pain you have given me.” She sunk into depression and, heartbroken, was finally committed to a lunatic asylum.
But Anne was only just discovering her sexuality and was keen to explore further.
Lister (Suranne Jones) and Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle) in the drama
She trawled medical books in a bid to understand her feelings and, finding no answer, she embraced her “oddity”, becoming promiscuous and, many would say, a predatory seducer.
“I cannot live without female company, without someone to interest me,” she wrote in her diary.
Typical of the details she recorded was her description of an encounter with Guernsey widow Maria Barlow.
“I had kissed and pressed Mrs Barlow on my knee till I had a complete fit of passion,” one diary entry read.
Anne (Suranne) with one of her many sexual conquests in Gentleman Jack
Anne Lister was given a cruel nickname because of her masculine appearance
“My knees and thighs shook, my breathing and everything told her what was the matter.
“I then made several gentle efforts to put my hand up her petticoats which, however, she prevented.
“But she so crossed her legs and leaned against me that I put my hand over and grubbled her on the outside of her petticoats till she was evidently a little excited.”
While she flitted from lover to lover, however, one woman stole her heart completely.
Betrayed by lover’s marriage
Doctor’s daughter Mariana Belcombe was 21 when the pair fell head over heels in love, carrying on an illicit romance for years.
Anne travelled to see Mariana – who lived 40 miles away from Shibden Hall – weekly and the pair exchanged rings.
The couple regularly shared a bed, which was not uncommon among young unmarried women whose families were keen to protect their daughters’ virginal reputations before they landed a husband.
Suranne Jones as Anne Lister in Gentleman Jack
Anne, however, wanted a wife and was shattered when, in 1815, Mariana announced she was to marry a wealthy landowner.
Seething with jealousy, Anne attended the wedding and even joined the couple on their honeymoon, all the time venting about the “legal prostitution”, as she saw the union.
“She believed herself, or seemed to believe herself, over head and ears in love,” she ranted. “Yet she sold her person to another.
“Surely no-one ever doted on another as I did then on her.”
Anne got her revenge, bedding a host of society women including Mariana’s own sister, also called Anne.
But the pair were reunited after a year when Mariana came to stay and, taking to her bed with toothache, snuck Anne into her room and demanded a “kiss” – later revealed to be code for sex.
Anne Lister (Suranne Jones) with another conquest Vere Hobart (Jodhi May)
“I took off my pelisse and drawers, got into bed and had a very good kiss,” Anne wrote. “She showing all due inclination and in less than seven minutes, the door was unbolted and we were all right again.”
Anne continued to have other affairs until Mariana, jealous of her other lovers, begged her to “be faithful, to consider myself as married.”
“I shall now begin to think and act [as] if she were my wife,” she wrote.
But the relationship soon floundered again after Anne, eager to see her lover who was en route to Shibden, walked 10 miles in the pouring rain to meet her stagecoach.
Dripping wet, she leapt into the carriage where Mariana was sleeping, witnessed by her maid and her sister.
Mariana was furious. Worried their secret relationship would be rumbled, she later told Anne she was embarrassed to be seen in public with such a masculine woman.
Married for Money
By now, Anne was nearly 30 and desperate for domestic bliss.
Her gaze fell on Ann Walker, the young heiress of the adjoining estate, High Cliff, and she set her sights on seducing her.
Several times a day, she would walk the four miles between the two houses to see her and she built a cabin in her garden for secret trysts.
But her intended played hard to get – Anne had to ask three times before she agreed to sleep with her, which was unusual in her considerable sexual experience.
Once they became lovers, Anne proposed and, in 1834, the two women took Communion together in Holy Trinity Church, Goodramgate, in York.
Although same sex marriage was not a legal possibility at the time, Anne considered this to be their wedding and began to address Ann as her ‘wife.’
Her motives weren’t entirely romantic, however. Anne, who was to inherit Shibden a year later, was running out of funds and her new spouse was about to come into a considerable fortune.
But Anne was a compulsive spender and soon squandered their windfall on improvements to the house, a new garden and ill-fated investments in a coal mine and a hotel.
Suranne Jones and Sophie Rundle in Gentleman Jack
A plague outside the church in York where Anne and Ann ‘married’
Anne, who had always been a keen traveller, also insisted her bride join her on a carriage trip to Moscow and then to the Caucasus (now Georgia) in the winter of 1840.
There Anne, 49, caught a fever and died.
In her will, she left Shibden to her paternal cousins, gifting Ann Walker a lifetime interest so she continue to live there. But the new owners had her declared insane and put into a lunatic asylum. She died at her family home in 1854.
Cracking the sex code
Fifty years after her death, in the 1890s, Anne’s relative John Lister became determined to crack the code in the 26 leather bound diaries in the library at Shibden Hall.
He showed them to teacher friend Arthur Burrell and, after painstaking work over several months, he worked out the key to the complicated code.
The sex code in her 26 volumes of diary proved tough to crack
But what he read shocked him to the core. Her detailed descriptions of sex with hundreds of women bucked any societal norm of the Victorian era and, Arthur noted, “hardly any one of them escaped her.”
He advised his friend to burn the diaries to protect the family name but John hid them behind panels at the house, where they were rediscovered in 1933 and given to Halifax library.
Reluctantly Arthur revealed the key to the code but, while they were translated, they were once again buried by the council because of ‘unsuitable content’.
In 1982, academic Helena Whitbread discovered a microfilm of the diaries and began to unravel the racy stories.
The code to decipher Anne’s diaries
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A breakthrough came when she deciphered the passage of 12 December 1817, the night Anne and Mariana were reunited after her wedding.
Helena realised that “kiss” was in fact code for sex while a Q with a curl denoted a sexual experience.
Anne’s orgasms were marked in a margin with an X and she frequently referred to “grubbling”- her word for groping.
“Of all the things I thought she was hiding, it wasn’t sex with other women,” says Helena.
“I think the feeling was… ‘Oh my God – here is an absolutely truthful account of lesbian sex’.”
In 1988, Helena published her first volume of diaries – When I Know My Own Heart.
Even then, 150 years on, the explicit sexual encounters were so shocking that some thought the book was a hoax.
But today, Anne Lister is regarded as a pioneer in the LGBT movement, and is celebrated with a plaque outside the York church where she ‘married’ Ann.
The diaries can be seen in an online exhibition here.
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