The World’s a Bit Gayer Thanks to Gentleman Jack

In matters of representation, representation matters.

Gina Trapani

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Suranne Jones as Anne Lister in Gentleman Jack, about to marry Ann Walker in the first documented marriage between two women.

When Anne Lister wrote in her journal about what she did, who she saw, and the news of the day, she wrote in “plain hand,” her normal handwriting. But when she wrote about her relationships with her lovers–always women, sometimes married to men–she switched to “crypt hand,” a code she developed to make the intimate details impossible for snoopers to read.

A page of Lister’s journal, written in “crypt hand.”

That kind of caution was required for a woman who was actively courting and sleeping with women in 19th century Halifax, when the word “lesbian” didn’t even exist yet.

I’m on my third rewatch of HBO’s Gentleman Jack, Sally Wainwright’s series inspired by Lister. I couldn’t be happier and gayer for it. Who knew that someone like Lister existed almost two centuries ago?! I’m so grateful to Wainright for introducing me to Lister, an extraordinary woman whose life and diaries are full of historical delights.

Lister was a landowner, entrepreneur, and traveler. She wore all-black clothing, joined workers on her property digging ditches and building walls because she enjoyed manual labor, power-walked miles on a daily basis, openly competed with and challenged businessmen, and endured constant staring and comments about her unladylike appearance and habits. Because of her masculinity, people called her Jack. Her longtime lover Mariana was embarrassed to be seen with her.

“Nature played a challenging trick on me, didn’t she. Putting a bold spirit like mine in this vessel in which I’m obliged to wear frills and petticoats. Well, I refuse to be cowed by it.” — Gentleman Jack’s Anne Lister

Anne’s force of character was evident at at a young age. At 7 years old, a precocious Lister was sent to boarding school because her mother couldn’t keep her wild behavior in check. (After she was put to bed, young Lister would climb out of her window and run into town to observe the…

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Gina Trapani

Technology, culture, representation, and self-improvement. Once upon a time I started Lifehacker.