Gentleman Jack: Yorkshire author's new book discovers truth about Anne Lister's 'overlooked' wife Ann Walker

Ann Walker is the heiress who seemingly lived in the shadow of her more famous wife – Anne Lister, the Halifax businesswoman and subject of BBC period drama Gentleman Jack.

Yet a local author determined to shine a light on the true personality, achievements and eventual fate of Ann Walker has now published a book about the life of someone who had previously been relegated to a supporting role in the life of Lister, the Shibden Hall estate owner who left Georgian Halifax scandalised at her unconventional behaviour.

Rebecca Batley’s book The Life and Death of Gentleman Jack’s Wife is based on the diaries of Ann, which were discovered by complete chance in the Calderdale Archives in 2020. Only one notebook has survived, despite Ms Batley knowing there were multiple volumes as they were referenced in Anne Lister’s much more famous and numerous coded journals.

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From a wealthy mill-owning family whose mansion, Crow Nest, rivalled Shibden for grandeur, the portrayal of Ann was that she was a sort of ‘trophy’ wife who funded Anne’s lifestyle and travels when the Shibden estate was struggling. Her later life and death are shrouded in an aura of tragedy, as she was certified as a lunatic and spent time in an asylum. Although she is mentioned on a plaque on the wall of Holy Trinity Church in York commemorating her ‘marriage’ ceremony, Anne Lister’s name is far more prominent.

Sophie Rundle as Ann Walker and Suranne Jones as Anne Lister in Gentleman Jack (BBC/HBO)Sophie Rundle as Ann Walker and Suranne Jones as Anne Lister in Gentleman Jack (BBC/HBO)
Sophie Rundle as Ann Walker and Suranne Jones as Anne Lister in Gentleman Jack (BBC/HBO)

Ms Batley argues that it was actually Ann who was risking everything to throw in her lot with the notorious Anne, whose family were already well-used to her unconventional ways. Ann Walker was an eligible woman with property and connections who was expected to make a good marriage.

"I’d actually come across Ann already from a TV show that was made back in the 1990s, so I was already researching her when the diary was discovered. It became very much the central premise of the book. Few letters written by Ann have been uncovered and the diary is the best chance we have of hearing her voice. There isn’t even a portrait of her in existence, as many of the Walker family papers were lost in an estate sale in the 1860s.”

The diary begins with the couple on honeymoon, and ends after they have returned to Shibden, though Anne Lister’s premature death at the age of 49 is not covered.

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"There is only one volume but we know there are more that haven’t yet come to light, if they still exist. Ann has previously been portrayed as weak-minded, someone Anne married for her money, and I always thought there had to be more to it than that. Her life ends with her being ‘mad’, but her lunacy was a complicated period and I wanted to find out the truth about her struggles.”

She was able to compare each woman’s impression of the other from their writings, and was wryly amused that Anne complained often of Ann’s delicate health while they were travelling – only for Ann’s diary to reveal that she suffered headaches and tiredness because she was hungry and Anne rarely ate much.

Investigations of the period after the Walker family declared Ann legally insane revealed that although she had spent some time in an asylum, she was allowed to leave and was treated under a ‘gentle regime’, eventually dying at a family property, Cliffe Hill, where she had servants.

"She was not locked away, dragged from Shibden Hall and was quite happy. She went to live with her sister for part of this period. The legal requirements meant that her brother-in-law had to account for all of her money. They did the wrong thing, but for the right reasons.”

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Ms Batley believes that the partnership was an equal one, and Anne Lister only became a more dominant figure in the public imagination because of the sheer quantity of her diaries.

"We know absolutely everything about Anne, but less about Ann. Anne was very brave, but Ann tried to do things more subtly. She risked everything for Anne as her family were not supportive. Her story needs to be told.”

Since its publication earlier this month, the book has entered the top five in Amazon’s biographies chart and a further print run has been ordered. Ms Batley is currently researching the life of Anne Lister’s sister Marian – described as ‘the most constant relationship in her life’. She will be giving a talk at The Piece Hall as part of the Anne Lister Birthday Weekend in March.