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Anne Lister, Gentleman Jack

Gentleman Jack has captured our hearts

The story of Anne Lister, played by Suranne Jones, has given us a whole new insight into life in the early 19th Century. Born the same year George III came to the throne, Anne Lister was a dynamic and strong woman in a time when women were expected to be subserviant. She inherited land and ran her business, and her life, in a manner that did not sit well with a lot of people. In addition to her very masculine way of going about her business, she was also openly gay, which in those times was shocking. 

Although lesbianism has never, to my knowledge, been illegal in the UK, it was assumed that women who lived together and even shared a bed, were “just friends” and keeping each other company. 

Anne Lister was not shy in her relationships, and made it quite clear to anyone around her that this was not the case. 

Gentleman Jack’s diaries

During her life, Lister kept a journal where she detailed everything from business transactions to how she seduced women. When these diaries were discovered in the attic of Shibden Hall by the last inhabitant of the Hall, John Lister (a descendant of Anne Lister’s paternal grandfather). He set about deciphering them with a friend and local school teacher. 

Upon discovering the contents of the diaries Lister was advised to burn them, but he refused and the remained in the attic until the hall was taken over by Halifax Corporation, which later became calderdale Council. The school teacher who had assisted John Lister in translating the diaries, who was by now in his 80s, gave the council details of the code. A team of researchers the cracked the rest of the code and it is these diaries which now form the foundation of Gentleman Jack. 

During her 49 years of life, Anne Lister write over 5 million words in her journals, which is three times the length of Samuel Pepys diary. Her diary began on sheets of paper but when she began writing seriously she wrote in two school exerecise books. She began writing her journal when she was just 15 years old and continued to write throughout her life. 

What I love about her diaries is the personal content and the bravery of recording, what was afterall, a controversial life. Lister was afterall beaten and verbally attacked for her choices. 

Anne Lister - Gentleman Jack
Anne Lister Quote

This quote, taken from Anne Lister’s diary shows how important her diaries were for her mental health:


“What comfort this journal. I tell myself to myself and then throw

the burden on my book and feel relieved.”

She also wrote in a letter to her aunt in 1803; “My library is my greatest pleasure” showing that her love of the written word was life long, and important to her emotional health as well as her education.

I think I would have liked Gentleman Jack. I have always been drawn to the tomboy characters in literature and I love a good strong woman who knows her mind. After all I was a tomboy myself as a child and have always been quite headstrong.

She grew up, not that far from where I was raised too. Shibden Hall is only 10 miles from my childhood home in Gildersome, just outside Leeds. Having visited regularly as a child, I remember learning all about Gentleman Jack. On a visit with the Guides we learned about the secret diaries and I was enchanted by this strong, Yorkshire lass. I was always looking for strong role models from the past. I was enamoured of any woman who was brave enough to rock the boat at a time when we were expected to sit down and shut up. Her sense of style also fascinated me. I still love her style. If only I was brave enough to dress like her now! The costumes in Gentleman Jack are  stunning, but it isn’t the dresses and frills that I am admiring. It is the black floor length coats, the top hats and the starched shirts of Anne Lister. 

More than her appearance and her feisty nature though, I loved that she had a secret code, after all I had grown up reading Secret Seven and was fascinated by coded texts. 

Secret diaries of Gentleman Jack

Her code, comprised of the Greek alphabet, zodiac, mathematical symbols and punctuation, was relatively simple, apparently, although I’m not sure I would have cracked it. The fact that she was writing from the heart and pouring everything onto the page in this coded way, gave her some protection and ensured that noone else could easily read her journals. 

Anne Listers coded text

When we write in a journal and use the page therapeutically, as Gentleman Jack clearly did, it is important that we feel safe in being completely honest and saying exactly what we feel and she clearly had a good understanding of this from a very early age. She knew intuitively, as many of us do, that writing things down was a way for her to process the events of her life and work through any challenges. Given that only 40% of women were literate in 1800, she was fortunate that she was born into the circumstances she was and had access to this early therapy.

A very brief history of personal journaling

The earliest personal diary is believed to be that of Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor, during 2nd Century AD. Leonardo Da Vinci of course kept a detailed diary in 15th Century Italy. Given that literacy rates in the UK were only around 11% in the 15th Century, it hardly surprising that journaling didn’t take off more widely until a few years later. 

By the turn of the 20th Century literacy rates in the UK had reached a massive 97% (only 2% less than it is today), this gave many more people access to the written word, and if they chose, to diary writing. Diary writing was at its most popular during Victorian times, so it was just growing in popularity when Anne Lister began her journaling habit.

I find it fascinating that given that it was mostly women who kept personal diaries in the 1800s, Anne Lister allowed herself this feminine pastime. Perhaps it was her way of releasing all the tension that built up as a result of her life choices. What a blessing it is for us that she did though as it has given us an insight into an incredible woman. A woman who would, most likely, have been lost to history without this personal account of her unorthodox and fascinating life. 



Find out more about Anne Lister, Gentleman Jack and the power of journaling:

The Secret Diaries of Anne Lister

Gentleman Jack filming locations

The Power of Words

A little word told me…


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