If you've seen HBO's new series Gentleman Jack (opens in new tab), you're likely obsessing over the main character Anne Lister (played by Suranne Jones). Not only was Lister a real person, she was a 19th-century pioneer when it came to feminism, business, travel, and sexuality. In the first episode of the series, Lister's sister, Marian (played by Gemma Whelan) says (opens in new tab), "However far away my sister goes, however long she's gone for, she always manages to become the topic of any given conversation."
It's safe to say Lister was the most interesting woman in Halifax. Don't believe it? Just look at her diary entries—on which Gentleman Jack is based—for some of her most amusing quotes and beliefs on everything from voting to sex toys.
Anne Lister is often called the first modern lesbian (opens in new tab), and her relationships with women, depicted in the show, were a prevalent part of her life. However, the language around same-sex love hadn't been invented yet, so instead, Lister described her sexuality like this:
"I love and only love the fairer sex and thus beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any love but theirs,” she wrote (opens in new tab).
Lister might have been progressive for her time in a lot of things, but she wasn't 100 percent a feminist by today's metrics. In one of her journal entries, she wrote about reading a Manchester Observer article about women's suffrage. Let's just say she had some questionable thoughts:
"Right of women is a curious list of authorities in support of the rights of women to take part in these reform meetings — to vote for representatives in the House of Commons & in short, to be in every sense of the word, members of the body politic," Lister wrote (opens in new tab). "What will not these demagogues advance, careless what absurdity or ruin they commit!"
Yeesh. Perhaps in this, she was (sadly) a product of her time.
On Ann Walker
Ann Walker was Lister's wife, after the two made history on Easter Sunday in 1834 by having the first lesbian marriage in the U.K (opens in new tab). This was one of Lister's journal entries after talking a walk with Walker:
"Miss Ann Walker of Crownest overtook me, having run herself almost out of breath. Walked with her as far as the Lidget entrance to their own ground and got home at 6:40," Lister wrote (opens in new tab). "Made myself, as I fancied very agreeable and was particularly civil and attentive in my manner. I really think the girl is flattered by it and likes me."
On sex toys
Ring the alarms, people! Despite what you may assume, sex toys were totally a thing in the 1800s. Here's a somewhat opaque entry about them from Lister's diary:
"Got on the subject of Saffic regard. I said there was artifice in it. It was very different from mine and would be no pleasure to me. I liked to have those I loved near me as possible, etc."
In Jack Halberstam's book, Female Masculinity (opens in new tab), the author interprets this passage to mean that Lister had likely experimented with sex toys. "Could refer to use of a dildo," Halberstam says. "But definitely refers to her preference for tribadism over other forms of sexual activity, oral or otherwise."
On gender non-conformity
Lister refused to adhere to the standards society placed on women during her time. She made her own money, traveled by herself wherever she liked, and dressed and dated exactly as she preferred. As depicted in the series, Lister was often wearing all black and men's clothes. She writes in her diary about her desires to buck the system:
"Foolish fancying about Caroline Greenwood," she wrote (opens in new tab), "Meeting her on Skircoat Moor, taking her into a shed there and being connected with her. Supposing myself in men's clothes."
In another entry she wrote about how her lover, Marianna Belcombe, knew how much she detested being boxed into femininity:
"This is womanizing me too much...she lets me see too much that she considers me too much as a woman, " Lister wrote (opens in new tab). She later updates her diary after their discussion. "Talked of the management my temper required. Marianna knew it well. It had its peculiarities but she did not fear. Talked of...my sensitiveness of anything that reminded me of my petticoats."
What these diaries prove is that Lister refused to change herself for anyone, and we're all here for women being unapologetically themselves.
You can watch Gentleman Jack (opens in new tab) on HBO now.
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Alexis Jones is an assistant editor at Women's Health where she writes across several verticals on WomensHealthmag.com, 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.
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