Gentleman Jack by Angela Steidele review – seductions of a secret diarist

A new account of a pioneering lesbian life draws on a diary with graphic descriptions of sex in code

In July 2018 the first blue plaque to be encircled by the LGBT+ rainbow was unveiled at Holy Trinity church, Goodramgate, York. The plaque celebrates the life of Anne Lister (1791-1840), a “gender-nonconforming entrepreneur”, and commemorates the “marital commitment without legal recognition” that took place between her and her lover Ann Walker in the church in 1834. Controversially, the word “lesbian” was not used on the plaque.

Lister, from a wealthy family, inherited Shibden Hall, a Tudor mansion, near Halifax. She was closely involved in running her estate, well-read, well-travelled, and the only female co-founder of the Halifax Literary and Philosophical Society. She dressed always in black and spoke openly in her deep voice of her interest in other women. Locally she was mocked as “Gentleman Jack”. “Does your cock stand?” someone in the street once jeered, and anonymous hate mail started arriving at Shibden Hall. Angela Steidele, translated from German by Katy Derbyshire, notes that, even when physically threatened, Lister remained calmly committed to her lifestyle, and confident that “God was on her side, as she was His creature too”.

The Anne Lister plaque at Holy Trinity church, York.
‘A beast of a woman.’ The Anne Lister plaque at Holy Trinity church, York. Photograph: Handout

Steidele’s main source is Lister’s diary, discovered at the hall after her death. The 24 volumes, beginning in 1816 when she was 25, cover everything “from Prussia’s political standing in Europe to the care of her toenails”. Lister provides precise daily notes on the weather, public health, industry, conditions on a slave ship, new publications etc. Extracts from her diaries were posthumously published at the end of the 19th century in the Halifax Guardian, under the staid title “Social and Political Life in Halifax Fifty Years Ago”. What remained unpublished was the sixth of the diary that is encrypted in a combination of ancient Greek letters and algebra. Extracts from these sections, which contain graphic descriptions of Lister’s sex life, first appeared in the 1980s, but today there are still passages of the diary that have never been deciphered or transcribed. Steidele makes grateful use of the work of five generations of scholars, not attempting further decoding but drawing together what has already been revealed to tell the story of Lister’s “insubordinate life and loves in a single volume”.

The first chapter begins with Lister falling in love with a classmate aged 14 or 15. Eliza Raine had been born in Madras, one of two daughters of an English surgeon and an Indian, Tamil-speaking woman. After their father’s early death, Eliza and her sister were adopted and brought to York. Eliza’s dark skin and beauty would haunt Lister, but the liaison ended badly. Lister moved on quickly to other lovers, while Eliza, after falling out with her adoptive father, was committed to a mental asylum for the rest of her life. Steidele says that Lister may have “had a personal interest in having her declared insane. Coming from a madwoman, any confession about their former relationship would have borne less weight.” She speculates that Eliza may have been the model for Mrs Rochester, since Charlotte Brontë, living and writing not far away in Haworth, knew the Clifton asylum where Eliza was held.

Another of Lister’s early loves was Mariana Belcombe, also a doctor’s daughter. Mariana tactfully ignored Lister’s menstruation and avoided “anything that reminded me of my petticoats”. With Mariana, Steidele argues, Lister could be “the gentleman she felt herself to be”. But Mariana could not resist the material gains of marriage to a wealthy male suitor, 19 years older. She told Lister she hoped to be widowed soon (her new husband was 44) and that they would then live comfortably together. It was after Mariana’s husband intercepted one of Lister’s letters that she invented the special code for recording her sex life. Meanwhile, he pursued his own extramarital affairs and passed a venereal disease to Mariana, who infected Lister. Steidele reasons that this must have been trichomoniasis, which could be easily treated with a course of antibiotics today, but in Lister’s time resulted in heavy discharge and itching , and led her to seek a mercury cure in Paris.

After more love affairs and years of travel, Lister came back to Shibden Hall in 1832, determined to make a materially advantageous marriage of her own, even though a union between two women could not be legally recognised. Her prime prospect was Ann Walker, 12 years younger, the heiress to “new money” derived from steam-powered weaving mills. Lister calculated: “The object of my choice has perhaps three thousand a year or near it, probably two-thirds at her own disposal.” Steidele crisply summarises the situation: “Anne was interested in Ann’s money; Ann wanted sex.”

By the time they informally celebrated their wedding in Holy Trinity in 1834, their sexual relationship was faltering beneath the exchange of rings and vows. As their private life disintegrated, they rented a pew and went to church together to display their coupledom in public. Finally, to distract themselves from one another, they set off together on ever more ambitious travels, to the Pyrenees, Russia and Azerbaijan. In the wilderness, this unconventional couple mimicked conventional etiquette: “Being a gentleman, Anne always insisted on giving Ann the better place to sleep – ‘1 divan (carpeted) for Ann and a long low table for me’ – and gave her the best pickings of their meals.”

Lister died in 1840, probably from typhus, and Ann died in 1860 in the same asylum as Lister’s first lover. Steidele’s steely account of the lives behind the first rainbowed plaque is a triumph of truth over fantasy. Lister’s extraordinary pioneering life deserves to be remembered, even if, in Steidele’s words, she was “a beast of a woman”.

• Gentleman Jack: A biography of Anne Lister, Regency Landowner, Seducer and Secret Diarist by Angela Steidele and Katy Derbyshire (Profile, £16.99). To order a copy for £14.95, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.

Contributor

Ruth Scurr

The GuardianTramp

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