How 'Gentleman Jack' Became Anne Lister's Nickname

Nicknames aren't always so endearing.

anne lister gentleman jack
(Image credit: HBO/Matt Squire)

Despite centuries of denial from people's parents, nicknames are not always endearing. Look at Anne Lister, for example. Lister is the inspiration behind the new HBO show that uses one of her well-known society nicknames, "Gentleman Jack," as its title. 

The series is set in the 19th century and is based off Lister's real life, as well as details from her expansive (and coded!) diaries. Gentleman Jack follows Lister (played by Suranne Jones) on her journey to marry a well-off woman and restore her inherited home of Shibden Hall in West Yorkshire, England—neither of which the often close-minded society to which she belonged thought she could accomplish.

In 1826, Lister inherited 400 acres of land, including Shibden Hall, and got to work turning the property into a business, bringing in money from rent, wood, tolls, two collieries, and shared canals all on her own, according to the Daily Mail.

Dressed in all-black at all times (often in traditionally men's clothing with a top hat on her head), Lister made a name for herself in Yorkshire collecting rent and exploring her sexuality. And never once did she apologize for who she was. In the trailer, she remarks, "I was born like this, why should I compromise myself?" Lister even married her partner, Ann Walker, on Easter Sunday in 1834 at Holy Trinity Church, which was marked as the first lesbian marriage in Britain.

There was no language at the time to describe same-sex female relationships, as Jones said in an interview at the Radio Times Festival. "‘Lesbian’ wasn’t a word then—there was no community, there was no blueprint for what she was doing," the actress said. "She was just being herself, because that’s what she says nature intended."

Since things like dating women, earning an income, and living unapologetically were things that 19th century society thought only a man should do, her peers began referring to her Gentleman Jack, a slur to criticize her masculine appearance and sexual preferences.

Director Sally Wainwright pointed out that in Yorkshire at the time, the nickname wasn't a nice one. "The title Gentleman Jack—Jack meant dyke, lesbian," she said. "So it was either very vulgar language like that, or sensitive posh language like ‘wintering in Rome.'”

Even so, Wainwright noted that Gentleman Jack wasn't the most searing insult for a woman as smart and confidant as Lister. "Nobody could actually call her out on it, and if they’d got anywhere close to it she would have just run rings around them,” Wainwright said.

Lister clearly knew a thing or two about sticks and stones.

Gentleman Jack premieres on HBO April 22.

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(Image credit: HBO/Comedy Central/Getty)
Alexis Jones

Alexis Jones is an assistant editor at Women's Health where she writes across several verticals on, including life, health, sex and love, relationships and fitness, while also contributing to the print magazine. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University, lives in Brooklyn, and proudly detests avocados.