While gay men charged with sodomy were hanged in public, damned by priests and jeered by mobs, gay women could live discreetly as couples without fear.
This is pointed out with graphic clarity in a scene in the HBO drama Gentleman Jack, set in Georgian England, as Anne Lister, the central character of the story, seeks to reassure a wavering lover.
Gentleman Jack comes to us not long after the bracingly bawdy lesbian romp of The Favourite (also soon to be available on HBO), set more than a century earlier in which Queen Anne plays off two lady lovers against each other.
Both dramas are ground-breakers in the way they have opened up a previously hidden world where gay women were able to live on their own terms in British society with remarkable freedom.
But they also suggest that that freedom depended on social status. Queen Anne could do as she pleased and did. Anne Lister had to be a little more circumspect. She adopted the airs of a country land-owner, which she was, and had a shrewd sense of social entitlement that gave her a choice in how she lived that was not available to women in the lower orders of the very stratified class system.
Lister declared that she wanted to love women as a woman and not as a woman dressed as a man. This is at odds with how she chose to dress.
There is an open mannishness in the way that she is played by Suranne Jones on screen. This is authentic: Lister wore a top hat, a long black worsted coat over a plain black dress and black leather boots and carried a fob watch. She was only five feet four and a half inches tall but walked with a proud upright stance and had a deep, masculine voice—very similar to the strutting androgynous version of Lady Marlborough played by Rachel Weisz in The Favourite.
The nickname of Gentleman Jack was acquired decades after her death as she passed into local folk lore—“Jack” was code for a butch lesbian.
In fact, we know a great deal more about Lister’s double life than we do about Queen Anne’s because she recorded almost every day of it in a diary of clinical candor and great length, five million words in 24 volumes, from her teens to a month before her death at the age of 49 in 1840.
The text mirrors that double life: It is in two styles, what she called “plain hand” and in a code made up of random Greek letters that she called “crypt hand.”
These diaries are a startling corrective to the conventional picture of bourgeois Georgian sexual manners as represented by Jane Austen, where the action always follows a series of privileged young women seeking the security of marriage with young men who combine handsome features with large bank accounts and, often, weak character.
Lister had 11 woman-to-woman relationships in her lifetime and, as the TV series shows, one of her frustrations was that two of her lovers betrayed her because they felt they had to settle for heterosexual marriages with rich men for the sake of lifelong security.
As revealed in the coded parts of the diaries Lister invented her own euphemisms for sexual pleasures: Bringing a lover to orgasm was “bringing monsieur again;” advancing a hand beneath the petticoats was “grubbing;” the “kiss” was the actual orgasm; and having full sex was “going to Italy.” She provides aphrodisiacs for lovers suffering “a loss of libido.”
However, there is one side of Lister’s character that is not sympathetic and is virtually absent from the TV version. She was a terrible snob and a social reactionary.
Her life was rooted in Shibden Hall, her ancestral estate in Yorkshire, which she inherited in 1826. It was relatively modest in size, 400 acres, and the family’s wealth had been supplemented by investments in the textile industry made possible by Yorkshire’s founding role in the industrial revolution. But—like other fellow landowners—Lister chose not to talk about that kind of income because they looked down on it as “trade.”
She was also uncaring about the underclass that was created by the industrial revolution, during which the English peasantry, including children, were coerced into virtual slavery in “the dark satanic mills” of the William Blake poem.
Yorkshire abounded in those mills. It was only a short walk from Shibden Hall, from a wooded, bucolic valley over a hill and down into an industrial slum called Woolshops that had one of the nation’s highest mortality rates. Lister had a public path closed because it allowed the lower orders too close to her estate and she kept a loaded gun in the house in case of intruders.
Coal was the fuel of industrialization and Yorkshire had plenty of it. Lister’s estate had rich seams of coal beneath it. The drama makes a villain of Christopher Rawson, a landowner, banker and magistrate whose own mines are alleged to have tapped illegally Lister’s seams. The truth is that Lister was just as keen a mine owner as Rawson and just as indifferent to the woeful conditions of the miners as he was.
Although not politically engaged she opposed the social reforms of late Georgian England and demanded that all her male tenants voted for the Tories.
A disturbingly dark side of Lister’s pathology is her insensitivity to real human suffering while having a detached scientific interest in the human anatomy—in 1831 she hired an attic in the Left Bank of Paris where she had body parts sent to her from a morgue so that she could dissect them. She kept a full size human skeleton in her room.
Lister’s snobbery and social ambitions combined in what becomes the erotic center of the TV drama, her pursuit of Ann Walker, an heiress living at Lightcliffe, a nearby grand estate of 2,000 acres. Ann was 12 years younger than Lister and had a private income of around two thousand pounds a year, giving her an oligarch level of wealth.
Lister said of her: “She had everything to be wished for but the power of enjoying it.”
As played by Sophie Rundle, Miss Walker is a true pain in the neck—pampered, indecisive, manipulative and sly. In real life and in the drama Lister put up with all of this because to her it became more than just another romance—it became the conquest of one woman by another. Lister wanted to own Walker as a Georgian patriarch might want to own a wife—and all the wealth that came with her.
One of the pleasures of the drama is watching the slow yet relentless demolition of the veneer of gentility—all the Jane Austen tropes of heterosexual courtship—being peeled away during afternoon tea as Lister closes on her prey. The diary records repeated journeys of Lister’s lusty hand beneath Miss Walker’s petticoats as she hopes for response and consent.
There is a brief shock when it turns out that Miss Walker has recently been violated by an adulterer who is also a man of the cloth.
But finally Miss Walker consents to become the wife that Lister desires. Lister reconciled her lesbianism with her Anglican faith, and she held traditional marriage sacrosanct. She and Walker slip into the pews of a small church as a couple receive the sacraments and they, surreptitiously, exchange rings and take their own vows to solemnize the union.
Lister and Walker lived together at Shibden Hall and were observed according to the various tolerances and prejudices of the time. The less knowing observers could settle for the idea that it was a respectable platonic relationship of a kind quite familiar to many people.
For this there was a famous contemporary example that Lister herself had paid homage to: the Ladies of Llangollen.
Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, two upper-class Irish women, had fled to Wales to avoid marriages that their families had arranged. They lived together for 50 years in a renovated cottage, with a servant, a footman, two maids and a gardener.
They built themselves a large library where they received many guests including the literary giants of the day, William Wordsworth, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and Sir Walter Scott. Queen Charlotte persuaded George III to grant them a pension.
They were never openly accused of being lesbians. Eventually they were reconciled with their own families. The ménage was often referred to as “a Boston marriage” in which two women choose a marriage-like relationship without sex.
Anne Lister wrote of Miss Ponsonby: “There was a freshness of intellect, a verdure of amusing talent which, with heart and thorough good breeding, made her conversation more time-beguiling than I could have imagined.”
Gentleman Jack was created, written and (in part) directed by Sally Wainwright. She previously wrote and directed the creepy noir classic Happy Valley, set in exactly the same part of Yorkshire as Gentleman Jack, but in the present.
Wainwright was taken to Shibden Hall—now a protected heritage site—by her father and had long wanted to tell the story of Anne Lister. “I loved it then and I love it now” she says.
The revelations of Lister’s life would never have been possible but for John Lister, the last member of the family to inherit and live at Shibden at the end of the 19th century, who found and decoded the diaries. A friend urged him to burn them. Instead Lister hid the diaries behind oak panels in a bedroom where they remained undiscovered for 40 years.