The story of ‘the first modern lesbian’
Ahead of a major television dramatisation, the story of Anne Lister (1791–1840) is told by Jill Liddington and Angela Steidele, with chair Ruth Scurr.
Anne Lister was a wealthy landowner from Yorkshire, who kept a diary which eventually amounted to more than four million words. She kept the diaries from the age of 15 until her untimely death from an insect sting, at age 49, while travelling in Russia. They include a wealth of information about politics, business, estate management, religion, education and reading, science, medicine, travel, and local and national events, as this important area of Yorkshire experienced the rapid effects of the Industrial Revolution, seen from the viewpoint of an extremely well-educated pioneer.
About one sixth are written in a self-devised code based on a combination of algebra and the Greek alphabet, to which Anne referred as her ‘crypthand.’ She was convinced that no-one would ever be able to decode it. She was wrong. In the 1980s encoded portions of Anne’s diaries were unpicked to reveal her passionate love affairs with women, and painfully honest reflections on her sexuality. Dressing always in black, without any feminine frills, the locals knew her as ‘Gentleman Jack’, which is the title of a major forthcoming BBC/HBO dramatisation of her story, created by Sally Wainwright and starring Suranne Jones.
Jill Liddington is a writer and a specialist in women’s history, an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Leeds. The Long Road to Greenham (Virago 1989) won the 1990 Fawcett Book Prize. Rebel Girls (Virago 2006) was shortlisted for the Portico Book Prize 2008. She has had a long association with Anne Lister’s diaries: her books include Presenting the Past: Anne Lister of Halifax 1791-1840 (Pennine Pens, 1994, new editions 2010 & 2018), Female Fortune: Land, Gender and Authority: the Anne Lister diaries 1833-36 (Rivers Oram Press, 1998, reprinted 2010, 2018) and Nature's Domain: Anne Lister and the Landscape of Desire (Pennine Pens 2003). Female Fortune was chosen by Sally Wainwright on Desert Island Discs (2014) as the book she wanted to take with her.
Ruth Scurr is a writer, historian and literary critic and Director of Studies in Human, Social and Political Sciences for Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge. Her first book, Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution (Chatto & Windus, 2006) won the Franco-British Society Literary Prize (2006), was shortlisted for the Duff Cooper Prize (2006), long-listed for the Samuel Johnson Prize (2007) and was listed among the 100 Best Books of the Decade in The Times in 2009. Her second book, John Aubrey: My own Life (Chatto & Windus, 2015) was shortlisted for the 2015 Costa Biography Award and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. It was chosen as a 2015 Book of the Year in fifteen newspapers and magazines.
Angela Steidele is the author of Gentleman Jack: A biography of Anne Lister, Regency Landowner, Seducer and Secret Diarist (Serpent’s Tail 2018). She has written several other books about LGBTQ+ lives in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Love Story: Adele Schopenhauer and Sibylle Mertens was shortlisted for the NDR Kultur non-fiction prize. She won the Gleim Literature Prize for In Men's Clothes, her biography of Catharina Linck, and the Bavarian Book Prize for her novel Rosenstengel. She lives in Cologne.
Image: A page from Anne Lister's Diary © West Yorkshire Archive Service, Calderdale and portrait of Anne Lister by Joshua Horner c 1830 © Calderdale Museums