The fascinating life of Halifax's first modern lesbian Anne Lister

Anne Lister and her home Shibden Hall in Halifax
Anne Lister and her home Shibden Hall in Halifax

FOR A literary figure forgotten for generations, Anne Lister’s elevation to Bronte-like status is as hard to understand as the four million words she committed to paper

York is transformed into Georgian scene for filming of Gentleman Jack

Celebrated as “the first modern lesbian” - though that was a word not in her extensive vocabulary - her story has been dramatised and documented on television no fewer than three times in 25 years.

The commissioning by America’s HBO, maker of Game of Thrones, of yet another adaptation, her celebrity went global.

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After a life whose details she had to cloak in secrecy, even writing in code to protect her privacy, it is an irony she would no doubt have enjoyed.

And as if to underscore her place in Yorkshire’s literary pantheon, HBO announced that its eight-part life story of Miss Lister would be written by Sally Wainwright, the Sowerby Bridge playwright responsible for the BBC drama about the Bronte family.

Sneak peek of upcoming Sally Wainwright drama set and filmed at Shibden Hall in new BBC trailer

Miss Wainwright, who also wrote the series Happy Valley and Last Tango in Halifax, said her the subject was “a gift to a dramatist” and “one of the most exuberant, thrilling and brilliant women in British history”.

The series, Gentleman Jack is being filmed across Yorkshire by the BBC.

Lights, camera action as filming starts at Shibden Hall
It bestows a degree of fame that Miss Lister, whose neighbours called her Gentleman Jack and whose lovers knew her as Fred, could scarcely have imagined.

The four million-word diary she began recording on scraps of paper in 1806 is a remarkable social document of late Georgian and early Victorian Yorkshire, and of a love that dared not speak its name for a century to come.

Using an arcane combination of zodiac signs, punctuation and mathematical symbols, Miss Lister describes in erotic detail that would not be out of place à la mode in Fifty Shades of Grey, her love affairs and her methods of seduction.

Shibden Hall to reopen to the public after filming for BBC drama

From her privileged perspective as a landowner, mountaineer and traveller, she also includes her thoughts on social and national events.

Her code was deciphered after her death, at just 49, from a fever while travelling in Eastern Europe with a woman who in today’s terms would be her civil partner, by one of her relatives.

Upon discovering the nature of its content, he was advised to burn it, but instead hid it behind a panel at Shibden Hall.

The diaries were finally resurrected in the 1980s by a researcher from Birmingham University and published as Anne Lister’s Secret Diary for 1817.

Miss Wainwright's drama centres on the relationship between Miss Lister and her partner, Ann Walker.

“It’s a beautifully rich, complicated, surprising love story," said Miss Wainwright

“To bring Anne Lister to life on screen is the fulfilment of an ambition I’ve had for 20 years. Shibden Hall is a place I have known and loved since I was a child.”

She acknowledged that the story had been produced by the BBC as recently as 2010, with the actress Maxine Peake cast as Miss Lister, but said previously: “I don’t think it really did her justice.”

The BBC also produced A skirt Through History, a 1994 series with Julia Ford as Miss Lister, and a documentary, Revealing Anne Lister, presented by the Great British Bake Off’s host, Sue Perkins.