For historian Anne Choma researching the life of Anne Lister has been a labour of love.
She first started studying Lister’s colourful life as a student at Leeds University in the early 1990s, and more recently has worked with acclaimed screenwriter Sally Wainwright as an advisor on her new BBC TV drama series. She has also awritten an accompanying book, Gentleman Jack – The Real Anne Lister, which examines in more detail this remarkable Halifax landowner, diarist, traveller and lesbian.
There is a wealth of information about Lister largely thanks to her diaries, all 24 volumes of them. “Reading Anne Lister’s diaries is hard work and for me it’s like a continuing apprenticeship that requires dedication,” says Choma.
“For the drama alone I transcribed over 300,000 words, both code and plain handwriting, because she adopted two different styles of writing.”
Lister wrote in code when she didn’t want other people to know what, or who, she was writing about. “It could be about finances, it could be a cutting comment about somebody from Halifax, but primarily it was used to analyse her relationships with women.”
She devised the code herself. “It’s a mixture of random symbols, Greek letters of the alphabet and grammatical symbols each of which corresponded with a letter from our own alphabet.”
The code was broken after her death by John Lister, the last inhabitant of Shibden Hall, in the late 19th century. “He cracked the code with a friend, Arthur Burrell, and because some of it was so shocking and explicit for the time Arthur wanted John to burn the diaries but he refused because he was a historian and recognised the importance of the diaries.”
Even so, they remained pretty much undiscovered until the 1930s and now Anne Lister and her former home, Shibden Hall, are set to become famous thanks to the new TV drama.
Lister started writing a diary as a teenager in 1806 and continued up until her death 34 years later.
“Most of the diaries have still to be transcribed, we’ve only scratched the surface. I’m still transcribing them today and I’ve probably transcribed 400,000 words and other researchers have transcribed pockets, so it all adds up. But what me and Sally want to do is get the whole of the diaries transcribed,” says Choma.
“This is the only uninterrupted version of social commentary over such a long period of time – she knocks over Samuel Pepys when it comes to a contest.”
She and Wainwright worked closely together and one of the challenges they faced was what to leave out, given the vast amount of material about Lister’s life available. “This is where the book comes in because it gives greater context and detail to the drama.”
It is, Choma feels, a distinctly northern story. “Anne Lister is rooted in the landscape of Halifax and Calderdale and Sally’s a northern writer, so this drama has very much got a northern stamp on it.”
Lister, she adds, was a complex yet likeable character. “She was such an extraordinary human being. When people ask why she was special I tell them because she was bold and fearless in the face of lots of adversity as a gay woman in the 19th century.
“For Yorkshire people, in particular, the diaries are a really important document and it’s a first person written account of her lesbian sexuality and that’s important, too.
“The issue of gender and sexuality is such a modern debate and she was having those debates with herself 200 years ago. Anne Lister was such a modern woman. She was groundbreaking then and she’s groundbreaking now.”
Gentleman Jack – The Real Anne Lister, published by BBC Books, is out now priced £8.99.