Asexual Fairy Tales

Monday, 20 May 2019

Jack the Lass




Last night Anne Lister of Shibden Hall seduced her latest victim - me! With the first episode of TV drama Gentleman Jack airing on BBC1, a whole new set of people were introduced to a character I have been aware of most of my life. And while I've had a lifelong love affair with her estate of Shibden Park and family seat of Shibden Hall, last night was the first time I was definitely on Team Anne for more than just her legacy of landscape gardening and home improvements.

Don't get me wrong, Anne has always been a character of interest, although I do feel her reputation rather overshadows her other relatives. Which is why, when I wanted to write a Shibden Hall story for Come into the House, I chose to write about the Listers of the early 18th century. So, what gratification to find them mentioned in the drama script, too! You may have missed it the first time, but listen out for the mention of two brothers who tried to import wood from America. That was part of the inspiration for my story, "The Yorkshire Defiance".

My early impression of Anne as someone rather dour and scary comes from having this as my main visual reference for many years, glowering from information boards around the estate:

This becomes scary on another account when you read things like this quote from Angela Steidele's book Gentleman Jack (London: Serpent's Tail, 2018):

The heart-shaped locket may have contained pubic hair.
Too. Much. Information.

Too much information could well be the subtitle of Anne Lister's diaries. That scene in episode one where she writes in the diary immediately after making love to Mariana Lawton? All too likely. Even to read Angela Steidele's book, which contains only extracts from the diaries, requires a strong stomach, especially for someone as ace as me.


I bought this book earlier in the year, to read ahead of  the TV series. And I have to say that Anne does not come across as a particularly nice person in it. As a member of the landed gentry, she was not at all keen on the change and reform of her day, and was pretty snobby about the manufacturing class. She was one of those indefatigable people who took mammoth walks every day and had no sympathy for other people's weakness. (When she was abroad, her companions were almost killing themselves to keep up with her). And she wasn't even that nice to her lovers. She would string several along at the same time, and always seemed to be falling out with them. Worse still, her first ever lover, a mixed-race girl called Eliza Raine who she met at boarding school in York, was unceremoniously dumped and ultimately put into an asylum, with Anne's full blessing. What I wondered - did her many lovers see in her?

There is an interesting side note to this. In 2013, I wrote a blog called Captain Keeldar and Gentleman Jack, asking whether it was possible the Brontes knew Anne Lister. Angela Steidele thinks it is. Emily Bronte taught at Law Hill School in Southawram from 1838. The school's headmistress, Elizabeth Patchett, knew Anne Lister personally, and Emily met numerous relatives of Ann Walker, Miss Lister's "wife".


However, I didn't really fall under the Lister spell until last night, watching the first episode of the show that Matt Baker described as "Downton Abbey meets Pirates of the Caribbean". Sally Wainwright has done a magnificent job with the source material, working an awful lot of historical and family background into a small format. Of course, what could excite me more than to see my beloved Shibden Hall as a working family home, complete with fires, chickens and drying candles? Then there's the casting, the costumes and of course the splendid theme song by O'Hooley & Tidow (already downloaded and playing on repeat).

And Suranne Jones has brought a magnificent swagger to the part of Anne Lister. The top hat, the reckless driving, the cheeky asides to camera. The drama hasn't shied away from Anne's conservative politics, her ruthlessness or her career of serial seduction. But it has brought us something you don't get from the cold page, yet which Anne Lister must have had in spadeloads to do what she did. 

Her charisma.

Hang onto your hats for episode two!