BBC’s New Drama Based on the Diaries of ‘The First Modern Lesbian’

Within the walls of a historic old house in England’s West Yorkshire, twenty-four leather-bound coded diaries were discovered. The contents of these diaries, once deciphered, revealed the personal life and affairs of the house’s former owner, Anne Lister. These diaries were hidden within the panels of the house’s walls by a relative following Lister’s death. This relative had been so shocked by the events described in Lister’s diaries, that he knew they would have to be kept from public view, yet he could not even be moved to destroy them. Instead, he simply boarded them up in the house’s walls, to be recovered at some point in the future.

Now, those same diaries are the foundation for an upcoming BBC series, Gentleman Jack, which will tell the story of a woman now remembered as “the first modern lesbian.”


Portrait of Anne Lister
Image via Wikipedia


Anne Lister was born in Halifax, England, in 1791. Aware of her attraction to women from at least age thirteen, she kept an extensive record of her love affairs in her diaries, which were disguised via an intricate code of her own design. Anne was unashamed of her sexuality, and had several girlfriends in her early teens. Lister was born into a wealthy family, and at the age of forty-five, she inherited Shibden Hall (the family home) from her aunt, which afforded her additional independence usually unavailable to women of her time.


Lister maintained her diary her whole life, with the entries comprising a total of approximately four million words. After inheriting Shibden Hall, she earned an income off the Hall’s tenants and a number of entrepreneurial enterprises which she began despite the social mores dictating what an acceptable lifestyle for adult women was in the early nineteenth century. Due to her gender-nonconforming behavior, particularly her decision to dress in masculine monochrome black clothes, she was given the nickname “Gentleman Jack” by local Halifax residents.


Anne Lister's diary code
Just a snippet of Lister’s diary code | Image via Queer as Fact


In 1832, Lister met a wealthy heiress named Ann Walker, and within two years, they were married, or at least, as close as two women could get to being married in 1834 England. They took communion together at Holy Trinity Church in Goodramgate, York, which they felt represented a marriage. The church was recently bestowed with a blue plaque, trimmed in rainbow pride colors, commemorating Walker and Lister’s marriage.


Anne Lister plaque
Image via PinkNews


In 1840, while on a trip around Europe with Walker, Lister contracted a fever, and died at the age of forty-nine in Kutaisi, Georgia. After her death, her cousin, John Lister, a philanthropist and politician, discovered her diaries, and upon finding their coded passages, enlisted a friend to help him read what he recognized to be an important historical document given its detail and length. This friend, Arthur Burrell, was successful in cracking Lister’s crypthand, and was so alarmed by what he read that he urged John to burn every volume. John refused, understanding that these diaries would be incredibly valuable to future historians (and, if the theories that John himself was gay are true, perhaps feeling sympathy for his cousin’s need for secrecy) and instead hid the diaries away like a time capsule.


When they were uncovered, they became the source material for Helena Whitbread’s I Know My Own Heart and No Priest But Love, compilations of Lister’s diaries. These books were so bold in their accounts of queer love, that they were originally believed to be a hoax. Only upon further historical review and evidence was it confirmed that the contents of the diaries had actually transpired.


book covers of 'I Know My Own Heart' and 'No Priest But Love'
Image via Amazon


Now we can expect to see a resurgence of interest in Anne Lister’s life and work thanks to Gentleman Jack which is expected to premiere on BBC One and HBO at the end of this year. The series will star Suranne Jones as Lister, and is being written by BAFTA winner Sally Wainwright.


Featured image via Manchester Evening News.