Carrie Lyell visits Shibden Hall to learn about Anne Lister and meet the cast and crew of new BBC drama, Gentleman Jack

BY CARRIE LYELL, IMAGE BY JAY BROOKS

I’m on my way from Edinburgh to Halifax, staring out the window at the rolling green hills of West Yorkshire. Though we’re still a good half hour from our destination – the grade two listed Shibden Hall, and the setting for new BBC and HBO drama Gentleman Jack – I already feel like I’ve stepped into a Sally Wainwright series. 

It’s a blustery September morning – blawin’ a hoolie, as we say in Scotland – but Storm Ali and the inevitable train delays couldn’t keep me from being here, from this picturesque valley, because I’ve been waiting a long time to meet Anne Lister, one of the most formidable women in history and someone described as “the first modern lesbian”. 

And what a striking figure she is. Don’t worry – I’m not seeing ghosts – but actor Suranne Jones, who brings the famous diarist to life in this new eight part drama, written and directed by Sally Wainwright of Last Tango In Halifax and Happy Valley fame. 

Though it’s not the first time Anne Lister’s story has been told on the small screen, this series – which begins in 1832 – is far more ambitious than anything that’s come before. I meet these two northern powerhouses during a break in filming to find out more about Anne Lister, and how the series came to be. 

While Suranne – who won hearts and BAFTAs in the likes of Doctor Foster and Scott And Bailey – says she didn’t know much about Anne Lister before taking on the role, it’s been a longtime love affair for Yorkshire-born Sally, who is a bonafide expert on the famous business woman and can decipher the coded parts of Anne’s diary with ease. “What made me want to write about her primarily was her character,” Sally tells me. “What an amazing, extraordinary, huge personality she was, and the outrageous, brilliant and bold things she did.”

Image by Jay Brooks

Of course, it would be impossible to dramatise all five million words of Anne’s diaries. How has Sally distilled those into something accessible, and above all, entertaining? “We start in 1832. She’d inherited Shibden in 1826, and it’s a time in her life when she really came into her own, when she became who she wanted to be; the woman she was probably always destined to become.”  

What was it about Suranne that made her the right person to take on such a role? How did she get to be Sally’s leading lady? It can’t have been easy to cast a story, and a woman, so close to her heart. “For long enough, I couldn’t imagine who could be Anne Lister because there’s so many facets to her personality,” Sally explains. “She’s this mass of contradictions. She did so many fantastic, extraordinary things, and it was hard to imagine anybody on the planet being able to embody all of that.” “No pressure!” Suranne laughs warmly. Sally smiles: “The number of people who could play this part, there’s probably about one of them. And we got her.”

Since winning the role, Suranne’s taken a deep dive into Anne Lister’s life, becoming a “sponge” to soak up as much about Anne Lister as she can. “Honestly, oh god. You kind of want a job, and then you actually go in and start to work on the scenes, and then you really want the job. And then you get scared, and go ‘Oh god, just give me this job, please!’ she laughs. “When I got the call to say yes, I said ‘Give me everything’. I then got about five books sent through, I got a dissertation sent through. I got some of Sally’s notes sent through. We went on a reccy, here, and walked all the way round Shibden. We went stomping up to the coal mines. We fed some pigs on the way,” she laughs. “Then I met Anne Choma, our Anne Lister advisor. And my research basically started. I had to concentrate on the part of the diaries that related to our specific timeline, starting in 1832, because otherwise it would have blown my mind if I tried to look into everything that Sally knew. We went to Halifax and I looked at her diary, and Sally did blow my mind by leaning over me and reading part of the code!”

From the initial casting and “chemistry reads” to the research and the filming, it’s been a really intense process by the sounds of things, with everyone involved doing their utmost to make sure the series stays true to the diaries and handles Anne’s story with care – especially the parts regarding her sexuality, and her relationship with Ann Walker, played by Sophie Rundle. “We were introduced to an intimacy director,” Suranne tells me. “We were very thorough and sensitive. They helped us work on that side of her relationship. If we hadn’t have had all of that, I don’t think I would have been able to do the role. I really don’t.”

It is Anne Lister’s relationship with Ann Walker that is the emotional driving force behind the series. “The story starts when [Anne Lister] comes back from Hastings where one of her relationships has gone wrong, because yet another woman that she’s in love with is going to marry a man instead,” Sally explains. “She came back to Shibden and she set her sights on Ann Walker because she was rich. She says, ‘What she lacks in rank, she makes up for in fortune’. But the story we’ve told – and it’s true to the diary – is that despite it starting out on the rebound from Vere Hobart, and despite it appearing to be mercenary, she unwittingly falls for Ann Walker and she starts becoming, as she described it, ‘unhinged’ by it. You realise that she’s slowly falling for this very unlikely, very unassuming woman. Ann Walker was quite damaged; she was quite fragile. She’d had a lot of sadness in her life but she had a real core of steel inside her, and Anne Lister I think realised she had met her match.” 

Image by Jay Brooks

How difficult was it for women loving women to live their lives openly in the 1830s? “It was very acceptable for women to share the same bed,” Sally tells me. “Because it was believed that lesbianism wasn’t possible. That women couldn’t have orgasms together. There was a case in Edinburgh in 1820, when two women running a school were accused of having an ‘unnatural relationship’. They sued this woman. The judge threw the case out of court because he said ‘the crime alleged does not exist’. Women often slept together in the same bed because that’s just what they did as friends. And Anne Lister actually could exploit that. She was able to get a lot closer to women as a woman than she would have been able to if she was a man.”

That’s a view supported by writer and historian Anne Choma, who I meet later that afternoon on a tour of the grounds. Anne, who has been working on the diaries “on and off” since the 1990s, is an advisor to the show, and has also been busy transcribing around 40,000 words of the never seen before extracts for the drama. “Before Anne’s diaries were transcribed, people at the time thought they were a hoax. They didn’t believe them,” she tells me. “Women’s relationships were always seen as being ‘passionate friendships’, but Anne Lister dismissed all that with her diaries.”

Around a sixth of the 7,500 page diaries were written in code – a mixture of algebraic symbols, punctuation, zodiac and numbers – and Anne says much of those sections were to do with sex, which Anne Lister talked about in detail. “She talks very explicitly about her sexuality. She will talk about having sex with women and about the complexities of a relationships with women. And also about the ecstasies of love as well. It’s all there, and it’s very graphic.”

The story goes that Anne’s code was first cracked in the mid 1890s, by John Lister, the last inhabitant of Shibden Hall, and a friend – the historian Arthur Burrell. “They were the people who first found out about Anne Lister’s lesbian sexuality and were horrified by it,” Anne Choma says. “Arthur Burrell said: ‘You need to burn these diaries. They are absolutely horrific’. John Lister, being a historian and a learned man, decided no, he wasn’t going to do that. He saw the value in them and thank goodness he did.” “What I think is extraordinary is that nobody did burn it,” executive producer Faith Penhale adds. “It was preserved and hidden. They just put them back in the wall, almost with a hope that one day somebody might have the courage to bring it out into the public domain, and that is what’s happened.”

It’s very tempting to impose modern day thinking on a historical figure, with some wondering how Anne Lister might identify, if she were alive today. Many readers will be familiar with the controversy recently around a proposed commemorative blue plaque at the church in York where she married Ann Walker in 1834, describing Anne Lister as “gender non-conforming”. One Twitter user fumed: “Anne Lister will be turning in her fucking grave… She was a woman. She was a lesbian. What is wrong with those words? What are you doing?” But what language did she herself use? And what language does Sally use in her script? “There is no language for homosexuality except very heightened language like ‘Holidaying in Rome’, or very vulgar language like Jack, Gentleman Jack, and Dyke Jack. That was an insult she got. Everything used in the story dramatised comes from the diary – I’ve used the language she used in the diary. She’s very explicit in one episode, where she talks to Ann Walker. ‘I’m true to my nature, my feelings have never veered since childhood’. So her own language has been really useful to be able to express things without using [modern terminology]. I can’t think of any anachronisms I’ve used.”

Image by Jay Brooks

She lived in a time without labels, and never describes herself as a lesbian, Anne Choma tells me, but was “unequivocal” that she only loved women. And while Anne Lister as it “great pains” to understand her identity, what I find exceptional is that there was not the kind of inner turmoil you might expect. “She would say things like, ‘I dare say I’m made like any others who exist’.” Anne tells me. “She felt what she was completely natural. This was how she was made, and she had a right to live her life according to nature. Any young person coming out, any Christian coming out and struggling with their sexuality, should be given Anne Lister’s diaries to read because they offer hope and self belief.”

Remarkable, too, was the compassion shown by Anne’s family, as I find out when I meet the legendary Timothy West, who plays Anne’s father Jeremy Lister, and Gemma Jones, taking on the role of Aunt Anne Lister for a second time. They look rather imposing, in full period costume, but couldn’t be more warm or gracious. “Jeremy has a very hard time understanding the nature of Anne’s relationships,” Timothy says. “He’s sympathetic but doesn’t really know what it’s all about. He will support her in trouble and is very pleased when he sees the delight in her face and manner when things are going well between her and Ann Walker, the loved one. And he feels the pain when it’s all going badly.” And Aunt Anne Lister? “Well, I love her and so I’m compassionate towards her and as Timothy was saying, I worry when she’s unhappy,” Gemma explains. “I don’t think even in my imagination I go anywhere near the bedroom! Aunt Lister just sort of accepts that this is a rather extraordinary girl, very bright and passionate. So she’s supportive. But she does worry that her situation makes her very vulnerable. We’ve just done a scene now where she talks about not being treated nicely in the town and being spat at. And so I’m very defensive of her, and loyal. The bottom line is I accept her for what she is and want her to be happy.” 

Amazing how familiar it all sounds, really, for something that happened 200 years ago. Gemma nods. “Every new generation thinks they’re the first but of course, it’s all happened before.” What does she think Anne Lister might teach people today, in 2019, about prejudice? “Well, to fight against it and win through,” she says plainly. “Essentially this is a love story, and whether you’re loving someone of the same sex, everybody understands love. I hope that young people will relate to it and understand that it’s fine to be who you are and who you love.” 

Although it’s a period piece, Gentleman Jack really does speak to the hear and now while also remaining true to Anne’s life, something Sally has worked hard on in both the writing and the direction. “My approach to it is authenticity. I want it to feel very real so a lot of our conversations have been about the diary, about the real woman, about trying to reflect the reality of her world. But trying to make it resound with a modern audience as well, so people will sufficiently believe that the authenticity and the accuracy of the amount of research that’s gone in, but equally hopefully they’ll find it entertaining as well. It’s finding that balance. It’s finding a way of telling Anne’s story that creates a true semblance of going back into the past but that will entertain people as well in the here and now and that they’ll feel has a resonance now, and things to say now, which it clearly does.” 

Knowing all she does now, what is it about Anne Lister that speaks to Suranne? “Oh, there so much to love,” she smiles. ”Anne is unknowable, unlikeable, flawed, beautiful, true to herself, harsh; to herself and others. She’s a perfectionist, she is a self educator. She is an amazing lover. There’s a joyfulness about her love of women, yet there’s such a sadness when her heart’s broken, and it gets broken a lot. She is a carer. She’s funny. A bit mean. She’s very bloke-ish but very sensitive. I mean, what isn’t she? She is everything, and getting to play all those things but find a constant was the difficult thing.” 

Sally nods. “She’s a mass of contradictions, often, is Anne Lister, which is very hard to dramatise and very hard to play, but I think we’ve found constants within that. I always think of Anne Lister as very down to earth and very clever. She’s very mercurial as well. As soon as you think of one thing to say about her, you think of several things that contradict that. She’s hard to pin down. Hopefully that’s part of the excitement of the drama; that there’s a lot of conflict within her. The choices we’ve made I hope give it an edginess because of that.” 

Anne Choma agrees. “We’re producing a portrait that Anne would recognise herself, but one that also spoke to a modern audience. Anne’s language, some of it is very difficult to get your head round. It’s very flowery, it’s intellectual. Anne had a phenomenal intellect. She was awe-inspiring. She was fluent in Latin and Greek from an early age. So some of the dialogue had to be adapted so that the modern audience would be able to understand it.”

Like Sally – and indeed everyone I’ve met on set today – Anne Choma is passionate about Anne Lister, and tells me that as a gay woman, it’s a “privilege” to be able to work not just on Gentleman Jack, but transcribing the diaries themselves. “It’s an absolute joy to be able to do it. Every line is written with purpose, every line is loaded with interest. It’s like being part of a soap opera. When I’m reading the diaries, it feels like I want to know what’s coming next and that’s how brilliantly she writes, Anne Lister. It’s exquisite, it’s so full of detail, and everything has meaning. Nothing’s superfluous in her diary.”

As expected, Storm Ali thwarts my journey home, and I spend the night stranded in Newcastle. When I’m not tweeting my ballad of despair, I think about Anne Lister, about everything I’ve learnt today. What an honour, to hear Anne’s story, told by people who love in her, and in her own home, too. It makes it even more amazing when you think just how close her diaries were to being destroyed, like so many queer stories have been over the years. How different so many of our lives might have been; how many of us might have survived, had they not been thrown away, hidden or burned. Sally Wainwright, Suranne Jones, Anne Choma et al: they aren’t just making a TV show. They are preserving our history, like John Lister did before them, and I for one am endlessly grateful. 

This article first appeared in the May 2019 issue of DIVA – get your copy now at divadigital.co.uk.

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One thought on “Happy Birthday, Anne Lister 🎂”

  1. Love love love love this!!! As a young gay Christian I could not agree more when it said that any gay Christian should be given a copy of Anne listers diaries! They certainly offer hope and were actually one of the biggest factors in helping my to come out!

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