Anne Lister was a 19th century English diarist, recently brought back into the public conciousness with the television show Gentleman Jack, named after her own nickname. This article will examine her life and how difficult it can be for a public figure to control their image, especially when a person is known for going against societal norms. A key concept for this short research paper is self-fashioning. Who was Anne Lister and what does it take to construct an image of someone?
This paper analyses the many faces of Anne Lister. The aim is to show how she portrays herself in her diaries, how she is portrayed in the 2019 show Gentleman Jack, and what this can tell us about how identity is formed and represented. For this particular analysis, only the first volume of her diaries has been considered. The Secret Diaries Of Miss Anne Lister Vol. 1. paints a picture of what Anne Lister’s life would have been like from 1816 until the end of 1824. It is comprised of her diary entries, decoded by Helena Whitbread, and commentary from the latter. Anne Lister wrote much of her diary entries in code, such as passages about her experiences with women or other such private occurrences.
Self-fashioning and life writing
Reading her diaries, it could be assumed that Anne Lister, as she describes herself, is the “true Anne”. After all, who better knows ourselves than we do? Yet life writing, the act of describing one’s own life in a literary form (Eakin, 2019), is not so straightforward. Considering one’s account of one’s life as the truth could potentially lead to “misleading distinctions between experience and expression, content and form” (Eakin, 2019, p. 100). Whether we write about ourselves or present ourselves to others, we often take on an authorial posture. This means we take up a favourable position or “with great show take up a modest position” (Meizoz, 2010, p. 83). That is to say, we strategically present ourselves in a certain way to, for instance, gain status.
To come to a useful understanding of what Eakin calls "narrative identity", he argues that we must set this distinction aside altogether: “When it comes to autobiography, narrative and identity are so intimately linked that each constantly and properly gravitates into the conceptual field of the other.” In other words, describing identity in the form of a narrative does not cancel out the validity of the identity as described: “I concluded that self and story were ‘complementary, mutually constituting aspects of a single process of identity formation” (Eakin, 2019, p. 100).
Both Eakin and Greenblatt agree that another key element to self-fashioning is autonomy, although Greenblatt also speaks of the ability to shape another person’s identity as well as our own. “Autonomy is an issue but not the sole or even the central issue: the power to impose a shape upon oneself is an aspect of the more general power to control identity – that of others at least as often as one’s own” (Greenblatt, 1980).
Even more important than autonomy, according to Greenblatt, is the perception “that there is in the early modern period a change in the intellectual, social, psychological, and aesthetic structures that govern the generation of identities.” In other words, changes in society influence how one interprets another person’s identity. There are aspects of Anne's life that are interpreted differently now compared to when she was alive. Namely, reading her diary now, it is clear she was a lesbian who both struggled with and embraced her identity. During her life her sexual identity would have been seen as an oddity.
For Lister, writing an encoded diary “gave her the ability to assert a desire for women that offers a challenge both to the alleged absence of discourse on female homosexual experience and identity in the early part of the nineteenth century” (Rowanchild, 2000). Writing a diary allowed her to go against the idea that women simply had what was then called “romantic friendships.” I believe this gave her space to further investigate this part of herself in the same way that a person today would figure themselves out through conversations with friends. Her diary was essentially her loyal confidant.
It was believed in those days that there was no such thing as women having feelings for each other, much less expressing any type of romantic love towards one another: “In 1811, two school teachers won damages against a pupil's relative who accused them of lesbianism, because the judges believed such behaviour was impossible between women. Women, therefore, could not develop a lesbian identity, because no such notion existed in their culture” (Clark, 1996).
As will become clear, Anne Lister was a controversial historical character who was very aware of her social status and how she came across to her peers. At the same time, many people would have their own opinions of Anne Lister, regardless of how hard she tried to fashion a particular image of herself as a successful socialite and businesswoman. Regardless of criticism towards her, “Anne can be seen as a trail-blazer for the emancipation of women from the mores of her day” (Whitbread, 2010).
What follows is an in-depth look at the image created of Anne Lister, by herself and others, by analysing her diary entries and comparing these against the HBO show Gentleman Jack. Important to note here is that Anne Lister sometimes used alternative spelling for certain words. For example, “showed” became “shewed”. Direct quotes from her diary entries preserve these spellings.
The first modern lesbian
Anne Lister is often described as the first modern lesbian: “She was the 19th century equivalent of a “butch” lesbian, and she became known to locals as ‘Gentleman Jack’” (Whitbread, 2015). People who didn’t know her often thought of her as “eccentric.” She gained the nickname Gentleman Jack as a reference “to the fact that her masculine appearance and behaviour was sufficient to cause comment” (Whitbread, 2010). Anne Lister was very much aware that she was not like anyone else and leant into her “oddities”: “I know my own heart and understand my fellow man. But I am made, unlike anyone I have ever met. I dare to say I am like no one in the whole world” (Lister, 2010).
Her sexual identity was a popular rumour in her hometown of Halifax. Although it is considered by Whitbread to be a decently hidden secret, Anne Lister’s diary entries contradict this somewhat. For one thing, she was never very subtle. When she was interested in a woman, she would describe them in detail and how easy it would be to woo them. In 1818, she met a woman called Miss Browne and wrote this about one of their interactions: “What girl under such circumstances would not be flattered, & more interested than she might possibly be aware” (Lister, 2010). As a woman of status, it would be hard to flirt freely without repercussions.
Throughout her life, she kept a diary in which she wrote about her typical day-to-day. This includes such things as what she ate in a day, who she saw, and what she wore. More interestingly, she also recorded her thoughts on gender and her many encounters with women (Lister, 2010). However, these latter subjects were carefully hidden. Lister used a secret code, which she refers to as ‘crypthand’. It is a combination of algebra and the Greek alphabet.
“I know my own heart and understand my fellow man. But I am made, unlike anyone I have ever met. I dare to say I am like no one in the whole world.”
Although Anne Lister believed that writing her most intimate details in code would keep her private affairs from prying eyes, several decades later a descendant of the Lister family would break the code. “Anne’s lesbian sexuality was discovered … and then quickly re-buried. John was gay himself, and did not want to draw attention to his own sexuality by revealing his discovery of the diaries” (Whitbread, 2015). The diaries were soon hidden again but would be rediscovered by Helena Whitbread, who decoded her diaries and made it possible for the world to read about Anne and her experiences of being not just a woman but also a lesbian, a businesswoman, and gender nonconforming in the 1800s.
When reading her diary, it would appear that she rejects all ideas of typical femininity on the one hand but is also deeply hurt by being judged as being too masculine. “At the top of Cunnery Lane, as I went, three men said, as usual, “That’s a man’ & one axed ‘Does your cock stand?’ I know not how it is but I feel low this evening” (Lister, 2010).
She writes that many people can't decide whether she is a man or a woman and how this affects her, yet also uses her secret code to hide passages about her own “feminine” behaviour. For example, she wrote openly about business but hid passages about buying or fixing clothes. Another explanation for her need to hide any mention of clothes is how she yet again felt scrutinised by her peers: “She obviously felt reticent about her dress and appearance and was constantly the subject of criticism from her friends for her shabby and unfashionable wardrobe” (Whitbread, 2010).
Public Anne versus private Anne
Whitbread, who spent many years researching her life, writes the following about what kind of person Anne Lister was: “Her conservatism generated a fierce pride in family, a stubborn adherence to church, king and country, and an inability to empathise with the sufferings of the poor or admit the justice of the democratic spirit which was abroad in the years of the French Revolution” (Whitbread, 2010).
Anne Lister would often comment on how lonely she was and her wishes for a companion, as in this diary entry from February 23rd, 1819: “Felt the want of some companion whom I could love & the thought made me very vapourish” (Lister, 2010). An entry from September 26th of the same year comments on the same: “Oh, that I had a fit companion to dote on, to beguile the tedious hours. But I must study & never think of love & all the sweet endearments of life” (Lister, 2010).
Anne's ideal companion could not be just anyone, as Whitbread notes: “Anne was snobbishly aware of the high status she and her family enjoyed in the town and considered it a great condescension on her part if she socialised with the less elite, but eminently respectable, middle-class families in town. The trenchant remarks she confided to her journal indicate the dissatisfaction she felt in having to seek company among those who were not, as she saw it, her social equal” (Whitbread, 2010).
Her snobbish behaviour is also somewhat interesting as her diaries reveal that her family fortune isn’t quite as large as would be expected. “Lister's own parents were poor gentry, and her three brothers, on whom the revival of the family fortunes rested, died young; but her social status improved considerably in 1815, when she went to live permanently at Shibden Hall, near Halifax, with her wealthy unmarried uncle” (Rowanchild, 2000).
Anne only quietly admitted that her family's wealth wasn't entirely as her peers expected. "I never expected to be paid again, &M - made me give her a bunch [of flowers] at five shillings, that altogether I spent fourteen when I could ill afford it" (Lister & Whitbread, 2010). Yet in another entry she writes that she herself is great with money, somewhat blaming her family, or at the very least contradicting herself. "Tis enough to frighten one who has never had so much to spend before. But I see yearly expenses more & more & I must take care, but I have always had more than I have spent & I will try to manage so, always. At all events, I keep good accounts" (Lister, 2010).
As Anne portrays herself in her diary, there is a disconnect between the person described openly and the one portrayed in code. Her authorial posture in regards to high society borders on snobbish, refusing to talk to some while making a strong effort to connect with others (Meizoz, 2010, p. 83). The latter could be interpreted in two ways. On the one hand, being very particular about the company that she keeps could have been a way to improve her status in society. On the other hand, she also had to be careful because her lesbian identity was not widely accepted at the time.
By being somewhat aloof, she could create an air of mystery about herself - drawing people to her while keeping them at a safe distance. I would go as far as to say that being able to hide her private encounters with woman helped her to eventually accept her “oddities”, as she called them.
The fact that she hid elements of herself, such as her sexual identity, however, in no way invalidates her identity (Eakin, 2019, p. 100). Public Anne Lister was a devoutly Christian woman, properly educated, and above all a savvy businesswoman. Private Anne Lister, on ther other hand, portrays herself as lonely, vulnerable and deeply insecure. Private Anne Lister mirrors Public Anne’s experiences but could perhaps be considered more honest.
A Fictional Retelling of Gentleman Jack
A few decades after her first diaries were published, her life was reimagined in a television show called Gentleman Jack (Wainwright, Harding, & Perrott, 2019), a nod to the nickname given to her by the people of Halifax. The story is set in 1832, when Anne Lister returns from her international travels, heart broken by a break up. As she reacclimatises to her family home in Shibden Hall, she is faced with some difficult business decisions: “She takes over the rent-collecting from the estate’s usual man, turfing out underserving tenants as she goes. She makes plans to sink her own pits and start mining the plentiful coal sitting beneath the rest of them.”
A large conflict in the show is that the Rawsons, another wealthy family, have been stealing coal from her mines. To counter this, she decides to sell her fields for the price of all the years that they have been stealing what is rightfully hers. Eventually, to spite them she decides to sink her pits but in the process loses so much money that she almost loses the family home, Shibden Hall. Nevertheless, she remains a fierce adversary for the Rawsons and manages to save her home by borrowing money from Ann Walker.
We see her fall in love with Ann Walker, a woman from another rich family, and the trials and tribulations of being in a same-sex relationship at the time. “Ann Walker was a shy, wealthy young woman from Lightcliffe, who came to live at Shibden in 1834. Ann Walker had the social standing that Anne craved” (Whitbread, 2015). It is important to note that in The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister Vol 1., Ann Walker is only mentioned in passing and wouldn’t become a crucial part of Anne’s life until August 1832.
In the series, Anne Lister is portrayed as a more likeable but still flawed woman. She is rude to her family, often disregarding their personal feelings or their ideas about the family business. Of course, this could be for commercial reasons, as we prefer rooting for a good guy, yet it could also be a deliberate choice to portray Anne Lister, warts and all. In fact, it has been shown we enjoy watching “bad guys” or morally ambiguous characters:
“Since our childhood, a common culture chases us all into the rigid frames of behaviour and morality. Unless you’re displaying sociopathic tendencies, even when you have rebelled or played up, it’s not usually without regret or remorse. Our conscience will not let always let us play the bad guy, because we know there are consequences in the real world."
This image of a lovesick woman is in contrast with the kind of womanising behaviour she describes in her diaries.
The series also portrays her as a more fierce businesswoman than she appears in her diaries, although this could partially be because her family fortune was more of a gradual process, as we saw in an earlier section of this paper. Anne Lister didn’t truly come into money until later in life.
An affordance that television has compared to written text is that we aren’t simply reading about Anne Lister’s feelings and insecurities; they are made visible. According to Chatman, differences in form, content and impact can be explained by media-specific affordances (1980, p. 123). In other words, television can do things that books can’t and vice versa. Television allows us to see her emotions, we can hear her speak about her woes in regards to women and her social status. This, in my opinion, humanises a character that initially seems somewhat rigid and difficult.
Fictional versus Diary Anne Lister
The Anne Lister portrayed in the show wears exclusively black clothing and is often seen with ringlets in her hair on either side of her head. She also often wears a big, black top hat. Gentleman Jack’s Anne explains that she wears black because she is in mourning ever since her love Mariana left her to get married. Whitbread had a less emotional explanation for her wardrobe choices, mainly that Anne Lister was criticised for the way she dressed so she decided to wear only black, apart from a few touches of white. Both could be true as Mariana plays a large part in both the series and Anne Lister’s diaries.
Her relationship with Ann Walker, as shown in Gentleman Jack, gives a glimpse into what being queer in the early 1800s was like, although by showing her intimate relationships with women it also normalises her behaviour. Considering the time and how people thought about lesbianism, namely that it didn’t exist, this seems somewhat contradictory. When Ann Walker and Anne Lister start to develop a romantic relationship, Walker’s friends and family warn her against Lister. They say she can’t be trusted alone with women as she “does things to them.” Nothing particularly incriminating, though still strange that it is acknowledged as “dangerous behaviour”.
This image of a lovesick woman is in contrast with the kind of womanising behaviour she describes in her diaries. Even reading just a few chapters of The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister Vol 1. paints the picture of a woman who considers seducing other women a fun game. At the same time, she also describes herself as a very lonely woman who wants nothing more than to find a life partner. This is more in line with the Anne Lister we see in Gentleman Jack.
Both in her diaries and in Gentleman Jack, it is clear that many people Anne encountered found her strange and insufficiently feminine. Anne Lister used her crypthand to hide her true feelings about these encounters. Diary Anne Lister is anxious about her image and wants to be accepted by her peers. She desperately wants them to think of her as warm and a successful socialite, but is also very particular about whom she spends her time with.
This insecurity seems less prevalent in the television show as she seems somewhat disinterested in other people, apart from Ann Walker. A prime example would be the countless arguements she has with her sister Marian, who is exasperated with Anne for coming and going as she pleases. Marian invites a man to the house to be introduced to the family and wants Anne to meet him, but she is too focused on her own love life to be home for her sister (Wainwright et al., 2019). It isn’t until she faces almost losing Ann Walker that we see a more emotional side to Anne Lister.
Anne as she describes herself in her diaries seems somewhat indifferent and distanced from other people, but in the series, she seems quite emotional. This is because we see her emotions rather than interpreting them. Gentleman Jack shows a more likeable Anne Lister, which is in part because it is a more nuanced portrayal. The show effectively shows two narratives: Anne as an indifferent woman, affected by no one, and the underlying reason why she is this way, backed up by small snippets from her diary and short monologues.
Gentleman Jack's Anne Lister has of course been adjusted to make good television, but it is worth noting that she isn't that far off from how Anne Lister has chosen to portray herself in her diaries. Gentleman Jack, for better or for worse, is also broadcast on a popular network (HBO), allowing the show to reach a larger audience than her diaries do. However, it is hard to say how this affects the overall perception of Anne Lister.
Writing a secret diary allowed Anne to express and develop her identity as a lesbian (Rowanchild, 2000) while simultaneously expressing her concerns about what people thought of her. Not only that, without her diary it might’ve taken even longer for there to be more discourse on lesbian relationships in the nineteenth century. Gentleman Jack, the show, in turn, made this interesting dynamic more visible through the affordances of television. By seeing more lesbian relationships on television, it simultaneously normalises them.
She is the Anne in her diaries but also the Anne represented in Gentleman Jack. As we learnt from Eakin, the story of us is what creates the self. This does not exclude the possibility that this narrative is “written” by others, as Greenblatt confirms. Other people can have autonomy over our “self." That is not to say that all accounts of Anne Lister are immediately entirely accurate, but rather it confirms what Anne Lister describes in her diaries. Other people’s accounts of Anne are verified by Anne herself.
Chatman, S. (1980). What Novels Can Do That Films Can’t (And Vice Versa). Critical Inquiry, 7(1), 121–140.
Clark, A. (1996). Anne Lister’s Construction of Lesbian Identity. Journal of the History of Sexuality, 7(1), 23–50.
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Greenblatt, S. (1980). Renaissance self-fashioning: from More to Shakespeare. University of Chicago Press.
Lister, A., & Whitbread, H. (2010). The Secret Diaries Of Miss Anne Lister Vol. 1. Hachette UK.
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Rowanchild, A. (2000). “My Mind on Paper”: Anne Lister and the Construction of Lesbian Identity. In Representing Lives (pp. 199–207). Palgrave Macmillan.
Wainwright, S., Harding, S., & Perrott, J. (2019). Gentleman Jack.
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