The True Story Behind Gentleman Jack: 10 Facts About Anne Lister

Suranne Jones stars as Anne Lister in HBO's Gentleman Jack.
Suranne Jones stars as Anne Lister in HBO's Gentleman Jack.
Jay Brooks, HBO

Anne Lister was one of the 19th century's most intriguing characters: she was a businesswoman, a mountaineer, a world traveler, and a science enthusiast. But it’s her love life that she’s mainly remembered for today. Often described as the “first modern lesbian,” Lister had a number of same-sex relationships, as chronicled in her gripping, 26-volume diary. Due in part to her rather masculine fashion sense, Lister was nicknamed “Gentleman Jack.” Which also happens to be the title of a new HBO series based on her life, starring the brilliant Suranne Jones (Doctor Foster, Coronation Street). Here are 10 things you should know about Anne Lister.

1. Anne Lister used her love of books as a compatibility test.

“I love and only love the fairer sex, and thus beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any love but theirs,” Lister wrote in her diary in 1820. Before she eventually settled down with heiress Ann Walker, Lister won the hearts of numerous other women. Courting them wasn’t always easy, but Lister had her methods. While flirting, she used to gauge the other party’s interest by mentioning books or plays that dealt with LGBTQ issues—like the writings of Juvenal, a Roman poet who had some pretty strong opinions about homosexuality. By watching the listener’s reaction, Lister could often predict if her advances would be successful.

2. Traditionally “feminine” clothing just wasn’t Lister’s style.

Lister's era was one full of whalebone corsets and restrictive petticoats, yet her personal style emphasized function over form. Because she moved at a brisk pace and enjoyed long walks through the countryside (she reportedly walked 25 miles in a single outing on at least one occasion), she tended to wear thick, leather boots, which were generally deemed unladylike. She further defied convention by sporting lots and lots of black. Even though it was seen as a masculine color at the time, Lister filled her wardrobe with black bodices and long coats. She felt that the dark garments complimented her wiry physique, and in 1817, Lister—then 26 years old—declared, “I have entered upon my plan of always wearing black.”

3. She ran her family's estate for more than a decade.

Growing up, Lister would frequently visit Shibden Hall, the brick-and-timber mansion that was the home of her aunt and uncle, who had no children of his own. Lister moved into the estate in 1815, after the untimely deaths of all four of her brothers. When her uncle James passed away in 1826, the job of managing Shibden Hall (and its surrounding 400 acres) fell to Lister. She handled its finances, oversaw its coal deposits and quarries, profited off of the onsite canals and timber, and collected rent from its tenants right up until her death in 1840.

4. As an anatomy student, Lister once dissected a human head.

On one of her extended trips to Paris, Lister was often seen attending scientific lectures, where she deepened her knowledge of everything from zoology to mineralogy. According to Angela Steidele’s 2018 book, The Gentleman Jack: A Biography of Anne Lister, Regency Landowner, Seducer and Secret Diarist, the eager pupil cut open a deceased rabbit, a severed human hand, a disembodied ear, and “a woman’s head.” “It is not known where the head came from,” Steidele wrote. “Anne, who had kissed so many women, took on the dissection of the face. She preserved the bits in rectified spirits and kept them in a cabinet she obtained especially, which also contained a skeleton and several skulls."

5. She was an accomplished mountaineer.

In 1830, Lister earned the distinction of becoming the first woman to ascend Mount Perdu, the third highest mountain in the Pyrenees Range. (Its peak is 11,007 feet above sea level.) Eight years later, she became the first amateur climber to ever scale the Vignemale, an almost equally tall summit in the same range.

6. She and Ann Walker married in 1834 in what is often cited as the first lesbian wedding in recorded British history.


Portrait by Joshua Horner - GLBTQ Encyclopedia, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On Easter Sunday, 1834, Lister married Ann Walker in what is often cited as the first lesbian wedding in recorded British history.

The women had been acquaintances for several years. Walker was 12 years younger than Lister and, by all accounts, a whole lot shyer. In 1834, she finally accepted Lister’s persistent proposals to join her in a union that would be “the same as a marriage” (as Walker described it).

After selecting a pair of rings, they took communion together on Easter Sunday, 1834, at the Holy Trinity Church, Goodramgate in York. So far as Lister and Walker were concerned, the shared Easter service was their stand-in wedding ceremony. They never mentioned this to the church, and their marriage went unrecognized in the eyes of the law. But if you visit the house of worship today, you’ll find a rainbow-ringed plaque that reads, “Anne Lister 1791-1840 of Shibden Hall, Halifax Lesbian and Diarist; took sacrament here to seal her union with Ann Walker [on] Easter 1834.”

7. an angry mob once burned effigies of lister and walker .

Lister didn't make a lot of friends among her tenants. She used to pressure them into voting Tory and refused to rent land to people who didn’t share her political beliefs. Her notoriety only increased after she began her new domestic life with Walker. Lister took an active role in managing her significant other’s estate, which was located near Shibden Hall. Soon, a dispute broke out over a drinking well on Walker’s land. Although residents of the broader community depended on that well, Lister considered it family property. So to assert her control over the situation, she had a barrel of tar dumped into the water—making it unfit for consumption. In retaliation, effigies of both Lister and Walker were burned. (Ultimately, a magistrate ruled that the water belonged to the public, and that Lister’s actions were unjustified.)

8. Lister died while vacationing in the country of Georgia.

Throughout her life, Lister maintained a passion for traveling. In 1840, Lister and Walker toured eastern Europe. That autumn, the couple was out exploring present-day Georgia (the country) when Lister came down with a horrible fever, possibly as the result of a tick bite. [PDF] Lister died on September 22, 1840; she was only 49 years old. Walker brought Lister's remains back to England, where they were buried at Halifax Minster.

9. Altogether, Lister wrote more than 7000 pages of diary entries.

Lister left behind a 26-volume diary encompassing a grand total of 7722 pages and roughly 5 million words. She started documenting her fascinating life in 1806, when she was just 15 years old. Around one-sixth of the preserved pages were transcribed in code. Those cryptic passages included some vivid descriptions of Lister’s sex life.

10. Some of those diary entries had to be decoded—twice!

The code Lister used was an odd, punctuation-free mixture of ancient Greek letters and algebraic signs. Toward the end of the 19th century, John Lister, one of her surviving relatives, successfully cracked the code with the help of his friend, Arthur Burrell. But once he figured out what the documents actually said, John hid them away, lest they attract a scandal. When Lister’s journals were subsequently rediscovered, a writer by the name of Helena Whitbread managed to unravel the code again in the 1980s. Whitbread then published decoded editions of the diaries, and the rest is history.

10 Dramatic Downton Abbey Fan Theories

Jim Carter as Mr. Carson in Downton Abbey (2019).
Jim Carter as Mr. Carson in Downton Abbey (2019).
Focus Features

Despite its exhaustively polished veneer, Downton Abbey was always a soap opera. Julian Fellowes's historical drama about a family of aristocrats and their many servants could never resist a good shocker, and it deployed plenty of them over the course of six seasons. The valet was suspected of murder (twice). One of the Crawley sisters got knocked up by her older married boyfriend, who promptly went missing. And another sister’s first sexual encounter ended in death. Considering all this, it should come as no surprise that fans have developed similarly wacky theories about the show. These fan theories include secret parentage, undercover spies, and, of course, poison.

Brush up on the best of them before the Downton Abbey movie hits theaters—just in case the whole miscarriage curse comes up.

1. Mr. Carson is Lady Mary’s father.

This theory all comes down to eyes. As you may recall from science class, certain genes are dominant and others are recessive. This is perhaps most easily understood through eye color, where brown eye color, a dominant gene, is expressed as BB and blue eye color, a recessive gene, is expressed as bb. A parent with brown eyes might carry the recessive blue eye gene (i.e. Bb), but if you plot out genetic probabilities on a basic Punnett square, two blue-eyed parents with double bbs have seemingly no shot at producing a Bb baby. Now, what does any of this have to do with Downton Abbey? Both Lord and Lady Grantham have blue eyes, but their eldest daughter, Mary, has brown eyes. This has led some fans to speculate that Lady Mary is actually the daughter of Carson, the family’s beloved butler who has always acted as as sort of second father to Mary. As debunkers have noted, two blue-eyed people can have a brown-eyed child, because recessive genes aren’t that simple. But isn’t it wild to think of Carson and Cora having an affair?

2. Thomas Barrow poisoned Kemal Pamuk.

One of the soapiest subplots of Downton Abbey's first season involved “poor Mr. Pamuk,” the dashing Turkish diplomat who makes a fateful visit to the Abbey. After enjoying a day of fox hunting and an evening of sparkling conversation, Kemal Pamuk drops dead ... right in Lady Mary’s bed. The cause, it is later revealed, was a heart attack, but many viewers suspected something more sinister. Earlier in the episode, the Crawleys’ closeted footman, Thomas Barrow, made a pass at Pamuk, which the diplomat rejected quite forcefully—so much so that he threatened to get Thomas fired. That placed the footman in a tricky situation, but it was nothing a little poison couldn't fix, and that’s exactly why some fans believe Thomas slipped something into Mr. Pamuk’s dinner.

3. Lady Grantham’s miscarriage started a curse.

In the Season 1 finale, tragedy strikes. The newly pregnant Lady Grantham slips on a bar of soap, falling onto the bathroom tiles and inducing a miscarriage. It’s a sad moment, but it’s also, Reddit claims, the source of the house’s future misfortune. According to this theory, the miscarriage kicks off a curse of deadly pregnancies: Lady Sybil dies in childbirth; Matthew Crawley dies in a car accident soon after the birth of his son; and when the maid Ethel Parks becomes pregnant with Major Bryant’s child, he dies, too.

4. Mr. Bates is actually a bad guy.

Brendan Coyle and Joanne Froggatt in Downton Abbey (2019).
Brendan Coyle and Joanne Froggatt in Downton Abbey (2019).
Focus Features

Downton Abbey invests a lot of time and effort in convincing us that John Bates, Lord Grantham's trusty, is a great guy—despite his checkered past and multiple murder allegations. But what if everyone’s assumptions about Bates are exactly right? Some Redditors believe Bates is just a remorseless serial killer, pointing to his intense hatred of his first wife and “creepy vibes” as evidence. Anna had better watch out.

5. Michael Gregson is a spy.

Lady Edith’s boss and lover Michael Gregson is the publisher of a London magazine, The Sketch. Thanks to his job, he knows tons of important people, travels all over the world, and speaks multiple languages. He eventually disappears inside Germany in season 4, and later dispatches to the Crawley family imply that he was a victim of Adolf Hitler’s “thugs.” (The show timeline places Gregson in Munich right around the time of the Beer Hall Putsch.) Or at least, that’s the official story. Another one suggests that Gregson was a British spy gathering intel on the insurgent Nazis—and he might not have died at all. His superiors simply needed to feed Edith a lie that would discourage her from poking around, so they made up a cover story that someone who follows the news would believe.

6. Lady Rosamund Painswick is Lady Edith’s mother.

When Lady Edith becomes pregnant with Michael Gregson’s child, she finds a strong support system in her aunt, Lady Rosamund Painswick. Upon learning Edith’s secret, Rosamund travels to Downton Abbey to help her niece through her pregnancy, and suggests adoption options as the due date draws near. Some fans have interpreted this empathy as a clue that Rosamund, not Lady Grantham, is Edith’s true mother. It could also explain why Edith looks (and behaves) so different from her sisters. Or it could just be a sign that Rosamund cares about her niece.

7. Lady Mary’s “operation” was IVF.

In season 3, Lady Mary claims to have undergone a “small operation” that will help her start a family with Matthew. It’s maddeningly unclear what this operation entails, but one wild guess is that she had an early version of IVF. The complete crackpot theory is that this was a cover for Matthew’s infertility, which the doctors wouldn’t disclose to him, presumably to preserve his 1920s masculinity.

8. Lady Mary’s son George becomes a Royal Air Force pilot in World War II.

Lady Mary’s son George is only five years old in the series finale of Downton Abbey. But that means he would theoretically be 18 in the fall of 1939, which is exactly when World War II broke out in Europe. He would almost certainly enlist, as show creator Julian Fellowes himself has suggested. But Decider has more specifically theorized that George would join the Royal Air Force (RAF), “with a desire to rebel against his emotionally distant mother and find purpose in a greater cause.” Sounds like George would be taking part in some dangerous missions, putting the entire family’s future at risk.

9. Public tours keep the estate alive.

The Crawleys spend much of Downton Abbey fretting about the future management of their estate—partially because Lord Grantham is kind of bad at it. But Lady Mary has taken over when the series ends, and Fellowes believes she’d find savvy ways to keep her family’s home in their hands. “She would probably have opened the house to the public in the 1960s, as so many of them did,” Fellowes told Deadline. “And she’d have retreated to a wing, and maybe only occupied the whole house during the winters. My own belief is that the Crawleys would still be there.”

10. The Dowager Countess keeps Denker and Spratt around for the drama.

Gladys Denker is a maid to the Dowager Countess. Septimus Spratt is her butler. These two do not like each other, and they’re quite public about it. Denker and Spratt’s unprofessional squabbles would’ve gotten plenty of other servants fired, but fans believe the Dowager Countess keeps them employed for her own amusement.

You Can Rent This Wizard of Oz-Themed Cottage in North Carolina

Airbnb
Airbnb

This year marks the 80th anniversary of The Wizard of Oz, the classic 1939 adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s book. In addition to watching the film, you can opt for a more immersive way to celebrate the occasion. As Travel + Leisure reports, a cottage in West Jefferson, North Carolina offered on Airbnb is perfect for any traveling Oz fan—and it’s only $35 a night.

The studio cottage is considered a glamping destination and is slim on amenities—it has a breakfast nook, porch, sofa bed, and a Porta John—but the Oz-themed details more than make up for the lack of luxurious perks.

A pair of stockinged feet are visible under the home, hinting at a witch’s untimely demise; a character mural of Dorothy and her three escorts, the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion, appears on the side of the cabin; inside, various other decorations pay homage to Baum's books, including a pair of ruby slippers and a few stuffed Totos.

A cottage with a 'Wizard of Oz' theme in West Jefferson, North Carolina is pictured
Airbnb

If you go, you’ll have to act quickly. The cottage is open only in the spring, summer, and fall, as it has no heat.

The Airbnb listing has a perfect score across 16 reviews. You can book it here.

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

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