The global significance of Anne Lister as Gentleman Jack fans mark 180 years since her death

As events are held to mark 180 years since the death of Anne Lister, Laura Reid looks at the rise in global significance of the diarist’s story - and the Gentleman Jack effect in Calderdale.

Standing close to the tombstone of Halifax diarist Anne Lister, Reverend Jane Finn spoke of a steady stream of flowers and tributes left by visitors moved by her story.

It had been several months since the airing of the final episode of Sally Wainwright’s TV drama Gentleman Jack, based on Lister’s life in the 1830s - and the tale of the landowner who once called Shibden Hall her home was drawing interest from all over the world.

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Born in 1791, Lister was a pioneering mountaineer, intrepid traveller and entrepreneur. She was also a lesbian and engaged in a number of passionate relationships with women throughout her life.

Gentleman Jack focuses on the story of Anne Lister, a Halifax landowner and diarist.Gentleman Jack focuses on the story of Anne Lister, a Halifax landowner and diarist.
Gentleman Jack focuses on the story of Anne Lister, a Halifax landowner and diarist.

People feel like they’re pilgrimaging here and they have to leave something [in tribute to Anne],” explained Revd Finn, who is the curate at Halifax Minster where Lister is buried.

Speaking last November, she continued: “[Gentleman Jack] really touched a deep chord with people..I think [Anne] has given people a lot of courage to be somebody that they know they are."

Tomorrow, September 22, marks 180 years since Lister’s death. She passed away in Georgia in 1840, whilst travelling in Europe with her 'wife' (their marriage wasn't legally recognised) Ann Walker.

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A programme of digital events, under the banner of #AnneLister180: Celebrating Her Legacy, has been planned to mark the occasion, with people from all over the globe expected to tune in online. So just how did Lister become a figure of such international significance?

Anne Lister was an entrepreneur, intrepid traveller and wrote about her love for women.Anne Lister was an entrepreneur, intrepid traveller and wrote about her love for women.
Anne Lister was an entrepreneur, intrepid traveller and wrote about her love for women.

Lister wrote a detailed diary of her daily life, leaving behind an estimated five million words. Around a sixth of the entries were written in crypthand, a code of her own devising. She used it to describe her deepest emotions, private affairs and her relationships with a number of women, romantic interests that would almost certainly have been deemed transgressive in the society in which she lived.

It is a comprehensive collection, but, explains Dr Jill Liddington, a historian and author who has studied Lister’s journals and written about her life, “she wasn’t really known at all, or her diaries known, for a couple of generations [after her death]".

A descendant named John Lister discovered the diaries at Shibden. Liddington tells of how he wrote a number of articles based on what they contained, publishing them in the local newspaper between 1887 and 1892.

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“He was absolutely fascinated and did a series of articles about social and political life in Halifax at the time of Anne Lister based on her diary and extracts. At last at least part of Anne Lister’s life and diary became well known. But he couldn’t crack the code.”

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John enlisted the help of a friend, schoolteacher Arthur Burrell, who worked out two of the coded letters, and the pair eventually deciphered Lister’s crypthand. Shocked by the details of the lesbian encounters it detailed, Arthur advised John to burn the diaries. Though John could not bring himself to destroy them, he hid them away behind a panel at Shibden, afraid of the public scandal that would ensue should they ever see the light of day.

“John Lister didn’t do another word about Anne Lister from then until his death in 1933,” says Liddington. “Male homosexual activity was criminalised harshly. Although the law didn’t touch women, there was a culture of silence.”

That silence continued for the best part of a century, despite work on the diaries after Shibden transferred to the local authority following John’s death.

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Things began to change in the 1980s, when historian Helena Whitbread became intrigued by Lister’s story, initially examining a series of letters she had written before learning about her diaries.

She spent years researching and translating entries written between 1817 and 1824, before publishing I Know My Own Heart in 1988, sharing extracts of the diaries that detailed Lister’s series of lovers.

In the same year, the Local Government Act of 1988 was introduced, with Section 28 prohibiting local authorities from “promoting homosexuality by teaching or by publishing material”.

“It really [shaped] what Calderdale local authority could actually say about Anne Lister,” explains Liddington. “That restriction on promoting homosexuality again led to a culture of silence...However, what the act could not touch was independent publishers.”

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Whitbread’s second book, No Priest But Love, covering Lister’s life and diaries from 1824 to 1826, followed four years later and Liddington herself, interest sparked by Whitbread’s work and a Guardian article on Lister’s diaries, got stuck into her own research and transcription.

In 1994, she published Presenting the Past, a look at how Lister’s diaries survived the years, and Female Fortune, focusing on the journals and Lister's story between 1833 and 1836, then followed four years later. Sally Wainwright was given a copy of the latter by a mutual friend around the time of the millennium, Liddington recalls.

“Sally was absolutely gripped [by Anne’s story] and very much wanted to start writing script proposals for a drama series straight away...From then on we started working very hard together, walking around Shibden, going to visit some of the houses and places Anne Lister knew in Halifax and feeding ideas and research into a script proposal...This was about 18 years ago. Sally put forward various script proposals for an Anne Lister drama series and they got nowhere - at that stage, she wasn’t an established script writer.”

There remained a simmering level of interest in Lister and her diaries in the years that followed and in 2011, the journals gained greater cultural significance when they were inscribed into the UNESCO UK Memory of the World Register.

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But it is with the airing of Gentleman Jack last year that Lister and her story were truly thrust into the global spotlight, brought to life by Wainwright, the BBC and HBO.

Lister became a household name almost overnight, her story striking a chord with audiences across the world. Calderdale too was put firmly on the map, experiencing a tourism influx from fans keen to walk in Lister’s footsteps. In 2019-20, 60,000 people passed through the doors of Shibden Hall, triple the usual yearly average.

“It’s unbelievable what impact the programme has had on Calderdale,” says Bobsie Robinson, Cultural Services Manager at Calderdale Council. “Footfall before the lockdown was off the scale for us. Shibden Hall has seen so many visitors and a growth in international visitors from places like America and Australia.

“Anne Lister was well known but Gentleman Jack without a doubt took it to another level. You can read the diaries, you can have conversations and discussions [about them] but actually to visualise that story brought in new audiences.”

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“The lesbian community do see Calderdale and Halifax as their spiritual home now and they are claiming it, which is great,” Robinson adds. “The emotions it has stirred up nobody could have imagined. It’s been very powerful.”

Laura Johansen, Cultural Development Manager for Calderdale Cultural Destinations, sets out Lister’s legacy. “[Through her diaries], she gives us an unrivalled sense of what daily life was like in the Georgian and early Victorian era.

“She is particularly significant because she gives an honest, emotional and detailed account of her life as a woman who loved women, giving lesbians a place in history. Gay women who read her work and discover her story feel seen and represented in a way they haven’t before, which is a very special and meaningful thing.

“Anne is a deeply complex character – she was a hardworking and courageous woman, but she was also a terrible snob, she unfairly pressured her tenants to vote for her party of choice, the Tories, and she was often impatient and intolerant. This complexity makes her all the more fascinating.”

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Partnership working involving the council, Lister experts and fans, local organisations and members of the LGBT+ community has been taking place to help Calderdale continue to capitalise on what has been called ‘the Gentleman Jack effect’.

Ideas are already being formed to mark the 230th anniversary of Lister’s birth next April and there are hopes that a major Lister festival will become part of the area’s annual cultural calendar.

Robinson also wants to develop an educational programme through museums and cultural services, picking up on themes such as diversity, and hopes to see Halifax become a hub for the screen industry, focusing, in particular, on encouraging women into all areas of film, from production to writing.

Though Covid-19 has presented challenges, Robinson is confident visitor numbers will pick up again, with the online #AnneLister180 events allowing people to come together to commemorate Lister’s life in the meantime. “Once we’re good to go, I think people will come back and we’ll be busy creating things for them to come back for.”

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"The genie is not going back in the bottle," Johansen adds. “I think we can expect to see the research, awareness and events grow and grow, especially after Gentleman Jack series two airs. Fans worldwide are discussing their plans to visit Halifax and the Calder Valley on social media – they’re talking with real affection and excitement about us as a destination. It’s wonderful.”

The centrepiece of the #AnneLister180 event will be a memorial broadcast from Lister’s historic home of Shibden Hall at 3pm tomorrow (Tuesday 22nd). A service is also to be held at Halifax Minster, where she was baptised, worshipped and was buried, at 7pm.

Calderdale Libraries will be hosting a free webinar at 3pm today (Monday 21st) focusing on ‘the Gentleman Jack effect’ and Lister’s impact on Calderdale. And a fan-led research summit is set to take place from September 25 to 27.

People are also being asked to share what Lister and her legacy means to them using #AnneLister180 on social media. More details at The Yorkshire Post and become a subscriber today.

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James Mitchinson