Gentleman Jack: This is how you can read Anne Lister's saucy diaries online

Viewers have been captivated by the BBC's biopic of openly lesbian Halifax landowner Anne Lister.

Suranne Jones as Anne Lister in Gentleman Jack
Suranne Jones as Anne Lister in Gentleman Jack

Anne, whose family owned the Shibden Hall estate which is now open to the public, broke the Georgian and early Victorian mould by taking charge of land and business interests, dressing in masculine clothes, travelling extensively and refusing to marry a man. She was given the nickname Gentleman Jack - the title of the BBC One period drama about her fascinating life.

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Instead, she seduced women - many of them upper-class ladies such as Ann Walker, the companion she considered her 'wife' until her death.

Shibden Hall, the Lister family seat in Halifax

Viewers of Gentleman Jack - which premiered last weekend - have already been captivated by Suranne Jones's portrayal of unconventional heiress Anne Lister.

In the drama, Anne has made coy references to her journals, in which both her friends and enemies were committed to paper. In the first episode, she tells Ann Walker, a fellow heiress from the neighbouring Crow Nest estate, about them.

Anne Lister really did keep extensive diaries, many of them written in a code of her own devising to disguise private musings on her same-sex romantic encounters.

They were hidden behind a wall panel in Shibden Hall after Anne died aged 49 while travelling in eastern Europe - but are now available to read online thanks to an archive project.

What were the Anne Lister diaries?

Anne's diaries consisted of over four million words. She began recording her thoughts in 1806, and by the time she died in 1840 there were 26 volumes. One sixth of the content is encrypted in code, including many of the passages describing her lesbian affairs. The diaries also deal with social, political and economic topics.

The last Lister to inhabit Shibden Hall, John, found the diaries and managed to decipher their contents. A friend advised him to burn them, but he hid them again instead, and they were not re-discovered until his death in 1933, when the house was donated to Calderdale Council.

High-quality digital images of the pages are now online as part of the West Yorkshire Archive Service's resource. Gentleman Jack director Sally Wainwright has supported the project.

Who decoded the diaries?

In 1983, the diaries resurfaced, and local woman Helena Whitbread, who was trying to launch a new career as a writer, decided to study them.

In 1933, John Lister had died and the journals were gifted to Halifax Library. A friend, Arthur Burrell, who had helped him to decipher them, gave the library details of the code's cipher, before burning his own copy.

Helena was then first person to tackle the entire collection of writings and transcribe them. It took her five years, working on 50 pages each weekend.

Fascinating facts about Anne Lister

- Anne set up her own dissecting laboratory in Paris, as she had a fascination with anatomy

- After her lover Mariana Belcombe decided to marry a man, Anne accompanied the couple on their honeymoon and seduced Mariana's sister

- To ascertain whether a woman was interested in her, she would ask them if they had read the 'sixth satire of Juvenal' - which tells of two step-sisters who had a sexual relationship

- She preferred women of her own social station, and did not wish to take advantage of servants or lower-class women

- Of the Listers' six children, only Anne and her younger sister Marian, who appears in Gentleman Jack, lived past the age of 20

- In a curious coincidence, Mariana Belcombe's father, a doctor who specialised in mental illness and ran an asylum in York, treated two of Anne's lovers - schoolfriend Eliza Raine and Ann Walker, the latter after Anne's death

- Lister was a keen mountaineer who became the first woman to ascend Monte Perdido in the Aragonese Pyrenees in Spain

- Her business interests including coal mines, stone quarries and shares in canal and railway companies

- She spent some time living in a house on Micklegate in York now occupied by estate agents Hudson Moody