“When you’re in the presence of the real journals, it is a little bit like she’s speaking to you.” That’s how Sally Wainwright, creator of HBO’s Gentleman Jack, describes reading the diaries of Anne Lister, the so-called “first modern lesbian” and heroine of Wainwright’s series. Lister, who lived from 1791 to 1840, kept a thorough accounting of her life in her diaries, much of which she wrote in code that has only recently been decrypted. There are plenty of frank details about her sexuality, and her various affairs, as well as details on her travels and business dealings. In writing the series, Wainwright studied Lister’s journals closely, and even had star Suranne Jones speak directly to the camera in a few scenes in order to re-create “that intimate connection you have with her when you actually read the real journals.” In order to get a sense of just how Lister’s words got translated to the screen, Vulture spoke with Wainwright about seven of her diary entries that became key to writing this series.
Italics denote decoded text.
29th April 1832: A rejected Anne resolves to find happiness nearer to home and thanks God for her diary
My high society plans fail — unknown and without connections, money should abound. I have had my whim, tried the thing, and pretty much it has cost me. I shall in future perhaps do more wisely and within my compass … I shall now get out of my scrape as well as I can, and can manage it tolerably. I have been an Icarus, but shall fall less fatally, for I can still live and be happy, providence being willing … What a comfort my journals, how I can write in crypt all as it really is and throw off my mind and console myself — thank God for it.
This diary entry captures where Anne Lister was emotionally around the time that Wainwright opens the series. “In April 1832, she was at a really low ebb,” Wainwright said of Lister. “She was really devastated by the failure of the relationship with Vere Hobart, which had never become sexual. Which was rare for her, she pushed it as far as she could.”
Vere Hobart was aristocratic, while Lister was lower among the gentry, which also factors into her reference to Icarus. Lister resolved to find a woman to marry — and Lister at this point was very intent on marrying — who would still have money, closer to home. “She was very practical even though she was absolutely heartbroken,” Wainwright said. “She had this fantastic ability to dust herself down, to carry on, and to look for the next thing.”
17th August 1832: Ann Walker little dreams what is in Anne Lister’s mind
Out at 7 ½. First spoke to Pickels (pretty angrily) in the walk. Said he must do his job and stick to it or give it up and not come drunk to speak to me. Would soon find this sort of thing would not do for me … Called en passant on Miss Walker of Lidgate and sat with her tete a tete from 10 to 1! Talked of household economy. Got on very well — she consulted me about tenant right and told me all about the Priestleys and really made a too good story against them. He is not really a man of business — things went on better without him — and had not (neither he nor Mr Edwards) behaved like a gentleman. Said how astonished I was they (the Priestleys) knew all my family concerns — I meant to leave him my executor — and all she said astonished and grieved me.
In playing with it, foolishly broke a pretty ivory book knife Miss Catherine Rawson had given her, very sorry. Miss W behaved very well about it. Said my great consolation was that it would be a good excuse for my giving her one some day from Paris, which I hoped she would value as much as the one destroyed. ‘Yes!’ she should value it more. Thought I, ‘She little dreams what is in my mind — to make up to her — she has money and this might make up for rank’. We get on very well so far.
Anne Lister’s romance with Ann Walker, played in Gentleman Jack by Sophie Rundle, is a key part of the series, though Walker wouldn’t have thought of it as anything like a romance at first. “What I find really intriguing about this is that it’s clear reading between the lines of the journal, that Ann Walker was absolutely besotted with Anne Lister,” Wainwright said. “What I think is really fascinating is that because Ann Walker didn’t have the language to put her feelings into words, she hadn’t been able to explore her feelings. I think it’s intriguing and fascinating that Anne Lister can see that this girl is in love with her, and the girl herself doesn’t know that that’s what it is.”
Some critics have referred to Lister’s approach to Walker as “almost as a kind of grooming,” but Wainwright takes exception to the term. “Grooming is quite obviously a difficult word; it’s defined as predatoriness,” she said, noting that Lister never slept with anyone who didn’t want to sleep with her. “Anne Lister behaved in a similar way to the way men behaved, where it was desirable to find a wealthy woman. So if we take her out of the context of the time it’s easy to criticize her and call her rude names, like somebody who ‘grooms,’ someone who’s a predator. I don’t want to be blind to the fact that she was very good at courting and she went out of her way to court, and it was very important to her. But I think we have to be careful how we use contemporary language to consider her behavior.”
8th October 1832: Mrs. Priestley walks in on Anne and Ann
Kissing and pressing her as usual, she put the blind down, lucky, James had come in on trivial errands twice. And Mrs Priestley came at four. I had jumped in time and was standing by the fire, but Ann looked red and I pale, and Mrs P must see we were not particularly expecting or desiring company. She looked vexed, jealous and annoyed and asked (in bitter satire) if I had [been] where I was ever since she left me there. ‘No’, said I, ‘I only ought to have been. My aunt had been quite in a host of miseries’. Mrs P said, as if turning it all on this, ‘Yes, she was quite vexed with me’. I laughed and said I really did not intend doing so again. ‘Yes’, she replied angrily, ‘you will do the same the very next time the temptation occurs’. ‘Plain proof’, thought I, ‘of what you think and that you smoke [suspect] a little’. I parried all with good humour saying that I really must stay all night. She only staid a few minutes and went off in a suppressed rage today … Miss W laughed and said we were well matched. We soon got to kissing again on the sofa … At last I got my right hand up her petticoats and after much fumbling got through the opening of her drawers and touched (first time) the hair and skin of queer. She never offered the least resistance … When dusk, she asked (I had said I was at no time likely to marry — how far she understood me I could not quite make out), ‘If you never had any attachment, who taught you to kiss?’ I laughed and said how nicely that was said, then answered that nature taught me. I could have replied, ‘And who taught you?’
“I think this is a really clear description of how graphic Anne Lister was in her code about her sexual relationships with other women, which is why Anne Lister is so important,” Wainwright said. “She’s the first person in history who talked really clearly about gay lesbian sex. Prior to her diaries being decoded, people just didn’t believe that women had sex at this time. They thought women who had close relationships, they were romantic friendships rather than the fact that they were actually getting down and having a good time.”
Wainwright dramatizes the encounter in the third episode, and added that she was also intrigued by the way Lister describes Mrs. Priestley’s reaction. “It isn’t just that she’s shocked and appalled at the fact that they’re having gay sex, she’s jealous,” Wainwright said. “She’s jealous because Anne Lister is such a captivating woman, and she’s previously considered Anne Lister to be one of her very best friends. Anne Lister was very careful who she bestowed her friendship on. In fact, Mrs. Priestly is there being outraged, but part of her outrage is that she’s actually jealous, and I just think that’s absolutely fascinating.”
24th December 1832: The Rawsons have been stealing Anne’s coal but she won’t be beaten
Mr Jeremiah Rawson came at 9.05. Kept him waiting ten minutes and went down at 9 ¼ and had him ¼ or 20 minutes. Had the coal plan. He thought they could not get 10 acres. I made sure of it for Hinscliffe could get about 3 acres all which Jeremiah Rawson agreed to take (not to pay for what may have been stolen and got before) and seemed persuaded of getting 7 acres more. Not to go lower than Wakefield road upper wall. I said ten acres should be stated in the agreement but that if they really could not get so much with the present loose, I would not of course insist upon them paying for so much. It was not my intention to take any unfair advantage of anyone. He said I might now send down into the works whenever I liked. Still maintained the coal would cost them getting sixpence a corve and there would only be 4 corves per square yard. Said that the collier should have as much as the landlord i.e. Messrs Rawson and I ought to divide equally the profit. All the terms before proposed agreed to, I conclude as no objection was made. Thus has ended the tiresome business, though I shall not feel myself secure from pother until all is signed and sealed. Mr Rawson said Holt had the coal was not worth more than £160 per acre. “Did you hear him say so?” “No.” “Then I don’t believe he said anything.”
Mr R said he was never beaten but by ladies and I had beaten him. Said I gravely ‘is the intellectual part of us that makes the bargain, and that has no sex, or ought to have none.’
Lister includes some mathematical calculations alongside this entry, which demonstrates, to Wainwright, the quickness of her mind. “She could absorb complex information very quickly, and then she could turn it round and use it very quickly,” Wainwright said. “She had the confidence, having absorbed it, to just turn around and go, ‘Here’s what I’m going to do with that information.’ Most of us — well, me — I have to think about something for about a week before I act on it.”
28th July 1833: Mariana and Anne rake over the past
M entered on the subject of our break off, altogether excusing herself. Not done from caprice but from a fear of our not suiting. She saw my aunt thought she had behaved ill. Yes, said I, but my aunt only echoes my own sentiments … M enlarged on all she used to suffer at the oddity of my appearance. My being so like a man then entered into and defended the Blackstone Edge business. It was overhearing one of the post boys say I was a man in petticoats that set her wrong. I don’t remember ever hearing this before. I said not much, but how astounded I had been to find myself second to William Lawton. Tis now quite evident how much she wants to bring all on again but, though I am very kind, I always avoid this.
In Gentleman Jack’s upcoming seventh episode, Wainwright dramatizes this past between Lister and Mariana, an old flame. “It had been a very passionate relationship, they were in love with each other, and Marianna often got insulted because she was with Anne Lister, or she was seen in public with Anne Lister,” Wainwright said. “She often risked offending public opinion by dressing the way that she did. She often got insults whispered behind her back or even thrown at her. But it didn’t stop her dressing the way she felt comfortable.”
30th October 1833: The queen of Denmark’s birthday ball
Dancing till 12, then 30 ladies and 30 gents drew lots for each other and all the rest of us went to the Grand Marshall’s table in the King’s palace … Perpetually handed round supper, but nothing looking particularly good to eat but took some quince and some blancmange and a glass of good red wine and a glass of tolerable champagne to drink the Queen’s and Princess Charlotte’s birthdays … Everybody very civil to me … Princess Christian the finest woman in the room and Miss Ferrall the prettiest, best dressed girl. No magnificence of dress but everything assez bien. The palace moderately handsome. All the princesses spoke to me conversationally. Particularly Princess Christian and the Princess Wilhelmma. She asked me if I had been much in the Grande Monde. I answered no, not very much. Princess Christian admired my headdress. I said I had had grand puer about it. It had come down and Mrs Brown had arranged it. One of the Queen’s Maids of Honour observed my magnificent blonde and said it was not from Paris. Yes, but I had brought it here. Was in black and had nothing white with me. Could get everything good but stockings. I shall know better what to say by and by … I generally, on coming away, remember some gaucherie but I don’t care. I shall learn in time.
“It makes me quite emotional that she had the charisma and the intelligence and the ability to get herself into these situations,” Wainwright said of Lister’s ability to get into the queen of Denmark’s ball, especially because Lister was only a member of the low gentry. “She literally talked herself into the queen of Denmark’s court. I just love her audaciousness and the fact that the way that she got there.” The ball will also appear in Gentleman Jack, and Wainwright promises that they’ve recruited Danish The Killing actress Sofie Grabol to play the queen.
30th March 1834: Anne and Ann take the sacrament together
Three kisses — better to her than to me. Very fine morning F49F at 8 ½ am. Breakfast at 8 ½. At Goodramgate Church at 10.35. Miss W and I and Thomas stayed the sacrament. Almost all the congregation stayed, and though the church too small to hold many, the service took 40 minutes. The first time I ever joined Miss W in my prayers I had prayed that our union might be happy. She had not thought of doing as much for me. Called for a minute or two in the Minster Court to say we could not dine there at 5 ½ . Declined going to hear the fine anthem at 4 in the Minster. Walked to the village of Heworth and by the Stockton road back in an hour. And at Monk-bar church at 2 ½. The clergyman preached 25 minutes who read the prayers in the morning. I asleep and knew nothing of the sermon now or in the morning. Sat talking. Dressed. Off to Dr Belcombe’s at 5 ¼. Nobody but ourselves. Dined about 5 ½, coffee, tea. Home and 10.30. Sat up talking till 12 ½ tonight. Very fine day.
This entry describes Anne Lister and Ann Walker’s marriage, which will come up in Gentleman Jack’s season finale, but you’d be forgiven for not realizing it had happened by reading her description. “It was a very private understanding between them,” Wainwright said. “They go off and do other things; it isn’t like a wedding day.” Wainwright found the contrast, between the unspoken emotion of the marriage and Lister’s focus on the practicalities of the day, especially moving. “The fact that she writes about it in such a low-key way, in a sense, it kind of makes me cry,” Wainwright said. “It’s so important to her to do this, and then on the day it’s actually quite low-key and pragmatic and easily can go under your radar the first time you read it.”