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Book Review: Gentleman Jack — The Real Anne Lister

Most Sapphic women are by now aware of the BBC/HBO series Gentleman Jack, and therefore aware of Anne Lister. In fact, most of us are completely enthralled by the woman. If you are the 0.1% of people who have no idea what I’m talking about, stop what you are doing and go and check it out immediately. Really. I’ll wait.

I don’t usually go on about television shows but for this one, I’ll make an exception. You see, Anne Lister was a pioneer. She was a lesbian in 1800s England. She was also a fearless, strong woman who managed to travel extensively and, most breathtakingly of all, documented her entire life with extraordinary detail. Even her multiple relationships with women.

Keep in mind that this behaviour was at best frowned upon, at worse illegal and punishable in a court of law during this time. And so, Lister’s extensive diaries were written in code. This code ensured the diaries survival through to the 1930s when they were first decoded. Even then, the descendant was advised to destroy the diaries due to the shame they would bring to his family. Thankfully, he ignored that advice and hid the diaries in the ancestral home of Shibden Hall. From there they were later found and decoded again.

I’ve been aware of Lister’s story for a while but the recent BBC/HBO mini-series has caused a resurgence in my interest and has filled in a lot of the blanks. Upon finishing watching the final episode, one of the things I was most keen to do was explore how true the TV series was to reality.

Thankfully, BBC Books and Anne Choma provided an easy way to do this by releasing Gentleman Jack: The Real Anne Lister. I picked this up a couple of weeks ago and quickly worked my way through this fascinating read despite being on holiday and only having scant time for reading each night. The book is a fascinating insight into the real Anne Lister and the real timeline of events. I watch a lot of historical dramatisations and am well aware that stories often need to be moulded to fit a better narrative. Timelines change, events get tweaked, all to make the film or television series flow more smoothly.

Anne Choma expertly works her way through Anne Lister’s diaries, I can only imagine what an immense job that must have been considering the diaries are said to have contained around five million words. Lister liked to detail everything, and I mean everything. Luckily for us, Choma keeps to the most relevant and interesting parts of the diaries, keeping to a similar timeline of the TV series which enables a deeper dive into surrounding events and Lister’s thoughts at the time. I won’t give a blow by blow account of every little difference between the TV series and reality, suffice to say it’s a very interesting read and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in the TV series or in Anne Lister herself.

I always knew that Lister, while remarkable, was arrogant and probably not someone I’d like if I ever met her in person. Suranne Jones (Anne Lister) and Sally Wainwright (series creator) do a fantastic job of making this character likeable when in fact there are a lot of aspects of her personality which aren’t that admirable. That’s not to say that Lister wasn’t an amazing individual, she forged her own path in a time when women, and certainly butch women, were definitely not respected. The book states that Jones said upon learning about Lister “she’s a bit Marmite, this one.” A reference to the British spread who uses an advertising slogan “love it or hate it” due to people’s strong and often opposing views of its unique taste.

As an author of lesbian fiction myself, I find it fascinating how Wainwright took Lister and her diaries and somehow managed to work them into a thought-provoking, engaging TV series with so much love and feeling crammed into each episode (we’ve all cried at some point in the series, admit it). I don’t envy the decisions that needed to be made on what to change, what to ignore altogether, and what needed to be kept for the transition from reality to the screen. I can say that it all works beautifully, in my opinion, even though the TV series and the reality do differ quite greatly in some places.

The TV series is hugely enjoyable and I’m ecstatic that we get another series. I’m more than happy to watch Wainwright’s revised version of events, if she wants to keep beloved Aunt Anne alive beyond her time then so be it! The TV series needn’t be constrained to reality. Especially when we have an excellent account of the real events in Choma’s book. If you want to learn more about the characters, about life back then, and about the real timeline of events then check out Gentleman Jack: The Real Anne Lister by Anne Choma.

 

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