Gentleman Jack – The True Love Story Between Anne Lister and Ann Walker

This week I delve into the realities of the love story between the ‘first modern lesbian’ Anne Lister and her wife Ann Walker…

Holly: Hello darlings and welcome back to Past Loves – the weekly history podcast that explores affection, infatuation and attachment across time to bring you a touch of romance to daily life.

Welcome back. Now, if you’ve been listening from the first ever episode of Past Loves, way back when in May of this year so 2020 which frankly does feel like a lifetime ago now, you’ll remember that we started our exploration in the history of love stories in the heart of the Yorkshire countryside at Harewood House, discussing the love story between Princess Mary and Henry Lascelles. And we’ll be returning to the Yorkshire countryside today which is absolutely lovely for me – feels very much like we’re circling back but this time, we’re returning a century earlier to the early Nineteenth Century. 

If you hadn’t guessed last week from my clue about the fact that this love story is based on diary after diary, this week I am discussing the relationship between Anne Lister and Ann Walker. As a podcast that explores the history of love, I really believe that it would have been terribly remiss of me not to talk about Ann Walker and Anne Lister’s, particularly Anne Lister’s, story. The legacy that they left as a couple is vastly significant in the history of affection and attachment. Anne Lister, for instance, is often referred to as the ‘first modern lesbian’. Her diaries in particular are such a wealth of detail about the love lives of women in the Nineteenth Century which reveal so much to us about relationships in the past. Her diaries are incredibly detailed, like incredibly in every way imaginable, running to an estimated 5 million words but this is an estimate. I think it ranges between 4 and 5 million. She wrote a lot, let’s put it that way and about one-sixth of these words are written in code.

To discuss Anne and Ann’s story, I am joined today by Angela Steidele. Angela has written several books about LGBTQ+ lives in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries. Her book Gentleman Jack: A biography of Anne Lister, Regency Landowner, Seducer and Secret Diarist uses Anne Lister’s vast diaries, which offer such rich detail as I mentioned, to create a portrait of her life from the most intimate details of her numerous liaisons through to her plans to make her fortune by exploiting the coal seams under her family estate in Halifax. 

Alongside this ambition, she conducted a search for a wife. In 1821, she wrote: ‘I love, & only love, the fairer sex’. And she certainly did love them deeply and passionately! Her relationship history culminates in a marriage to Ann Walker, a local heiress. This is of course the relationship at the centre of the BBC TV drama series Gentleman Jack. It’s a show that I absolutely love – in fact it was probably my favourite period drama throughout the whole of last year – I really adored it. I thought Suranne Jones is particularly wonderful. I’m also a really big fan of Ann Walker’s drawing room – it’s a lot of interiors inspiration as well for me clearly. But quite seriously, I think it is incredibly powerful in the way in which it has brought a lesbian relationship from history to the mass audience.

So I am very excited to be having this discussion with Angela today – I have been really looking forward to delving deeper into Anne and Ann’s lives and I hope you enjoy learning more about this remarkable couple… 

Welcome, Angela and thank you so much for joining me today.

Angela: Thank you for inviting me.

Holly: So we’re going to talk very excitingly about Anne Lister and Ann Walker today, lots of Annes to differentiate between the whole way through. But we should start with Anne Lister, who was born in 1791. How would you describe Anne as a person?

Angela: She was very smart, very intelligent, very curious. She was ambitious. She had a very strong will. She was obsessed with girls and with words, and she was sexy.

Holly: She certainly was. Reading the diaries, I was like, it’s intense.

Angela: It’s intense. If you imagine that. No, there would have always been pornography since antiquity. But pornography is a male discourse and it’s a discourse on imagination. And we have very rare signs of day to day sexuality, what people actually did in bed. I mean, when children were born, you could guess ‘Okay, there must have been some intercourse before.’ But texts about what really happened were very rare before the mid-Twentieth Century, when social sciences started to ask these questions. So Anne Lister’s diaries are really unique in more than one sense. It’s not just that she had lesbian relationships, and she writes about lesbian desire. It’s actually that she writes about day to day sexuality at all, which is so thrilling. So yep, she was sexy.

Holly: Maybe we could start at the very beginning and talk about what her childhood was like, and what her parents were like.

Angela: Yeah, she came from a family of landed gentry. But father was a younger brother, meaning that a family estate all went to his eldest brother, Shibden Hall and the ancient acres in Halifax, while enlisted his father had to become an officer in the army and the family was not rich. So really her parents and she had five younger siblings – four brothers and a baby sister – and up until she, rather late in life, inherited this Shibden Hall (all her four brothers had to die before she inherited Shibden Hall) so up until that moment in her late 20s, she just had enough money to live a decent life, for the status in life she had. So she had to borrow money, she had to be grateful for gifts here and there. And for a long time, she did not have the income she needed and she wanted to have to lead the life she planned to do.

Holly: Yes, but she got a good education, didn’t she?

Angela: Yeah, this is one of the things with her strong will, you know, she saw what her younger brothers got as an education. They learned Latin. They learned Greek. They learned math and she wanted to have the same education, being educated as a young gentleman. And so she managed to get the priest, for example, to give her lessons in Latin and Greek and algebra. So although she was meant to have a female education, she was able to add serious courses which would be suitable for a young gentleman. And she never stopped learning as she was very curious. And she really read a lot, also academic work, scientific works. She never stopped studying.

Holly: So who was Eliza Raine and what was the significance of their relationship at Manor House School?

Angela: Manor House School was a boarding school for young girls in York and Anne Lister spent at least one year there and there she met Eliza Raine who would become a first love. Even many years later, and many other women and women lovers later, and Anne Lister would still record that Eliza as ‘the most beautiful girl I ever saw.’ This is a quote I remember. Eliza had an English father and an Indian mother, she was what they used to call back in these days are ‘half bred’, meaning she did not really belong into good society. But she had some money, which made it possible for her to stay in that girls boarding school. And both girls, Eliza and Anne, obviously shared a room with each other apart from the other girls and those two soon learned to enjoy their intimacy there.

Holly: Yes, they were kind of shunned up into the rafters of the school and found solace in each other in many different ways.

Angela: Yes they did but after a year, Anne Lister had to leave that boarding school, so they had to write each other letters. And this now is very interesting, because Anne Lister I wanted to make sure that every love letter she wrote to Eliza did not get lost. So she made a list of the letters having written and received. And this list is the nucleus of what would become one of the longest diaries ever written in the English language. Isn’t that remarkable? 

Holly: Incredible.

Angela: Anne Lister started soon to add some personal remarks about not her longings for Eliza, for example, also about her menstruation and about learning Greek. And so she added and added and added up until she realised that she was writing a diary.

Holly: Yeah, it was the start of so many different parts of her life exploring her sexuality starting these diaries and you mentioned that Eliza had this sum of money as well, they assumed that they were going to live off that sum of money, didn’t they?

Angela: Yeah, this was the great first romantic love with woos and vows. And they planned to as soon as they were of age, they planned to live together with Eliza’s money. But it turned out that there were other sweet little girls around. And Anne Lister would leave Eliza Raine. Eliza was devastated. But, Anne Lister so often later in her life, she simply could not resist with another beautiful face. And so we had Isabella Northcliff, Mariana Belcombe. But we should not go on to these other girls up until we have mentioned that in this beginning of my diary, there is also the invention of the secret code which Anne always used. So when Anne Lister realised she wanted to write about her feelings towards Eliza, her longing, she was in the situation that she did not have a room of her own, not even a desk or a draw of her own. So she had to find some other kind of hiding. She first tried to hide in script, meaning she experimented writing English, written in Greek letters using the Greek alphabet. But you knew that what not due because the priest who was teaching her Greek would have been able to read it. So she invented this secret code made up of Greek symbols, of mathematical symbols and self invented symbols. And up until she finally got that secret code, or crypt hand as she would call it, which she would write as her ordinary hand as well. So she was able to write it as we write our handwriting. And so this first love to Eliza Raine made really an impression up until the rest of her life because this secret code remained.

Holly: Yeah. So you mentioned Mariana Belcombe and she was a very significant relationship. What is the story of their relationship?

Angela: I think if you look at all the girls Anne Lister loved through all her life, I think it’s Mariana Belcombe, who was the really one, maybe not one and true, but the most significant love of her life. Mariana Belcombe and Anne Lister were together roughly for 17 years and they had an off/on relationship. Several times they vowed each other eternal love and had some kind of mock marriage arrangements. But then they left each other again. Mariana Belcombe married Charles Lawton. Anne Lister had several other women going on. Actually, I had to make a sex diary for her to always to count with how many women she was dealing at the very same time. But still, for around 17 years, she was not able to say goodbye to Mariana Belcombe, although she, in the meantime married Lawton. And there is strong evidence in Anne Lister’s diaries that they were both very happy with each other sexually. So bed was a strong union between them. And Mariana was the “sweet little creature,” “the icon of the sweet little creature,” that Anne Lister adored, and I think in every other woman, she kind of looked after exactly such a sweet little creature again. But as I said, Mariana Belcombe married Charles Lawton, she had to marry. Her family did not have any money. She was the daughter of a doctor, a surgeon who had more unmarried daughters. So it was simply impossible to turn down the marriage proposal of Charles Lawton. But that was the tragic of both lives, Mariana’s and Anne Lister’s. 

Holly: Yes, how did Anne react to their marriage? 

Angela: Actually…

Holly: Not well?

Angela: You know, she’s simply turned it into a ménage à trois. She accompanied Mariana to Lawton Hall, the newly married home, and simply was there in that marriage from the beginning on. The moment Charles Lawton turned his back to his wife, Anne Lister would be in bed with her. So Anne Lister did not accept this marriage as a break in her relationship with Mariana Belcombe. But Charles Lawton found out and he forbade any correspondence between the two women and he made sure that they cannot meet often. So it were hard times but really, for quite a long time, they tried still to have a relationship sexual relations still. 

Holly: Didn’t they think that because Charles was so much older that there was a chance that he would die relatively quickly after the marriage?

Angela: Yes, actually, they are counted of this. They said, in 10 years or so latest. ‘You’re a widow, my darling and then we are going to spend life to each other.’ If Mariana would get some children, they would raise the children together. So they had this imagination of a rainbow family, kind of, but it would not turn out. Neither did Charles die, nor did Mariana get any children.

Holly: So how did their relationship start to fizzle out?

Angela: In 1826, this uncle of Anne Lister died and she inherited Shibden Hall and she actually became mistress of Shibden Hall. And at that time, Mariana was willing to leave her husband, Charles, and come and live together with Anne in Shibden Hall. But by now, Anne Lister not only had had numerous other love affairs with other women, but she also felt ‘now I am something now I don’t need Mariana any longer, and I might find someone better.’ So she turned down, Mariana’s offer to come to live with her, and instead, she travelled for several years on the continent, especially in France, but also in Italy and Germany and Switzerland to find that female companion she was dreaming off. She imagined her to be young, pretty, rich, of high aristocracy, but willing to look up to her, to accept Anne as the gentleman and to live with her in Shibden Hall. Although Anne Lister looked after this golden gem everywhere she didn’t find it and in 1832 she had to come back to Shibden Hall quite broken.

Holly: Yes, she did. Now what were her ambitions for Shibden Hall when she did come back and what was that return like?

Angela: Her father was still there. Her mother had died long before. But there was still a life of her father whom she felt was very embarrassing. She really felt ashamed of him. She liked her aunt with whom she had spent several years in Paris. But her aunt was ailing, and also boring in Anne Lister’s views, and Anne Lister hated her baby sister, Marian. So she did not get along well with her family, actually, they ruined her nerves. Anne Lister saw herself as the head of the family, and she wanted to rule the house. But this was against, but the rest of the family and patriarchy thought because the rest thought that the father was still the main person in the house. Anne Lister had to share her income with her father and her aunt. So there was not much money to spend. But she saw herself as a glamorous land owner, who wanted to make some improvements as she would call it to Shibden Hall, make it look better, you know, the house was quite rundown. It was not the glamorous place Anne Lister thought it should be. So she was lacking the house, she was lacking the money, she was lacking the woman at her side to lead that respectable life of representation, she imagined herself to lead. 

Holly: It’s very evocative of normal male contemporaries seeking the right woman and the right situation for them to continue their lives.

Angela: Actually, it’s a bit disappointing when you come to realise that you understand Anne Lister quite well if you look at the male rascal.

Holly: So how did she meet Ann Walker then?

Angela: We got her now in 1832 devastated after years on the continent with not finding that female companion and she wanted to change something in her life in 1832. And she really was decided to find that female companion and she made a list of those girls in her neighbourhood which were still there so to say the rest which no one had picked up so far. And Ann Walker ended up on top of that list. She was 12 years younger than Anne Lister and she was a neighbour. The two families the Listers and the Walkers – how do you call this?

Holly: Social calls 

Angela: They made social calls to each other and so they knew each other for long and we have traces of Ann Walker in Anne Lister’s diary long before, informing us that Anne Lister did not like that girl, she found her stupid and well, a bit nice to talk to, but not much. We learn also from the diaries that Ann Walker may have had a kind of girls crush on Anne Lister quite early on. So when Anne Lister made, again a formal call, trying to find out whether she could seduce Ann Walker. Ann Walker answered quite openly and was encouraging and so things developed very quickly between them.

Holly: Yeah, so maybe we could talk a little about who Ann Walker was and why she ended up at the top of Anne’s list of suitable women. How would you describe an Ann?

Angela: One of the most difficult things as a biographer of Anne Lister, who has to ask yourself ‘who was Ann Walker?’ is that most of the sources we have are seen through Anne Lister lens. Anne Lister wanted to see Ann Walker as a frail and weak person whom she could easily dominate and Anne Lister saw her as nervous, as being alone, as needing help. Some parts of this story as told by Anne Lister might be true or might have some truth in it. But I’m sure it’s not the whole truth, because obviously it’s coloured by the wishes of Anne Lister. I think, for example, Anne Lister portrays Ann Walker in her diaries as very shy. But actually then we learn from Anne Lister’s diaries that it was Ann Walker who paved the way to her bed, who invited Ann several times over with the words ‘don’t you want to spend the night with me?’ ‘Take your night things’ and so on. So, obviously, Ann Walker also played a pivotal role in, in this love affair. So she was not that weak and shy person, as a Anne Lister loved to see her.

Holly: What was her childhood like?

Angela: In the beginning, she had a brother and a sister in a very wealthy family. Her grandfather had made a fortune with wool mills and trade. They were so to say, new money. This was the expression the Lister family with their ancient land used to call them. But as they were richer than the Listers, one had to make these social calls. So she had a very protected childhood with everything there. But then a series of deaths occurred and Ann Walker lost in a very short time, both her parents and her brother, the heir to this fortune and so she and her sister Elizabeth were left alone with lots of money, meaning, fortune hunters would soon show up. And Elizabeth, her sister soon fell prey to such a fortune hunter. His name was Captain Sutherland. And if you want, Anne Lister was also a fortune hunter who turned up at Ann Walker’s doorstep, because when Ann Walker ended up on that list, all this had happened. And Walker did not have any parents any longer and her sister was married, just an old aunt was looking after her. So when it comes to patriarchy in society, Ann Walker, so to say was not protected by any family who would see that not a fortune hunter would gain her heart.

Holly: So how did the seduction start?

Angela: Anne Lister used her usual tricks. They talked about household affairs, she would feel her pulse, made Ann Walker feel comfortable. I think, if she wanted, Anne Lister was a really charming person, someone you know, the heart of a party, when the door opened and and Lister showed up, every head would turn. So she gave all this to Ann Walker and even more she in her landscaped garden, which she tried to develop in these years, she built a moss hut on purpose to seduce Ann Walker, because we remember Anne Lister still lived with her father and aunt and sister. So although she had a room of her own, but if she wanted to take some one, they had to go through the living room with all the others.

Holly: It was a bit public! 

Angela: So she wanted really to have a discrete room for her own and that was that moss hut which she built. To Ann Walker, she said: ‘I have built this at least sweet hut only for you, my darling.’ And Ann Walker was charmed. So this is the room where everything began, but actually Ann Walker felt that she wanted to end the first night in a bed, in a proper bed and not in the moss hut. And so she invited Anne Lister to come over.

Holly: Yeah, I mean the moss hut just sounds so charming. 

Angela: But the interesting thing is that, through the lens of Anne Lister’s diaries and this is all we have for these months, Ann Walker was very curious to go to bed with Anne Lister. But you would not answer her marriage proposal. Anne Lister who all her life first wanted bed and then marriage or maybe not marriage only bed, now for the very first time she pretended to be shocked first to go to bed with each other and then afterwards marry. So she wanted to have a marriage or what kind of marriage arrangement before she had sex with Ann Walker, but Ann Walker wanted it the other way around. This also tells us something about Ann Walker I think.

Holly: I agree. I think so too. So didn’t Ann request six months to think about the wedding proposal or something like that?

Angela: Yeah, she did. Anne Lister it was really serious and, as we all know, there was no gay marriage back in these days. So what did Anne Lister mean by a marriage proposal? She thought it is changing their mutual wills, in the sense to give each other life tenancy so that each other would benefit from the other’s fortune and during the marriage, Anne Lister saw herself as the master of Ann Walker’s fortune. So she wanted to do all the administration stuff and spend the money and know where it goes and so on, like a husband would. And she made that clear to Ann Walker. And I mean, this was not special. If you read the novels of Jane Austen, it’s all about money, when they talk about love. They mean money, and you read pages about which money will go where, and they make all these contracts and so on. Because this was what marriage was about. 

Holly: Yeah. 

Angela: And so Anne Lister imagined exactly such a traditional marriage between her and Ann Walker. So she was very serious. And Ann Walker realised, ‘okay, this is now really the decision for my life.’ And she hesitated. So that’s why she wanted to answer after six months. And then when the six months were over, or passed, she still could not decide. Then they quarrelled and they split. 1833 they spent apart from each other. Ann Walker went to her sister, Elizabeth, to Scotland to think all things over. Anne Lister wanted to travel to Russia for the first time. But when she arrived in Denmark, she got news that her aunt fell ill and she hurried back to see her once in her life again, the aunt survived. But so at the end of 1833, both Anne Lister and Ann Walker were back in Halifax. They both had had months of thinking and rethinking. And then they decided in the beginning of 1834, ‘okay, we’ll do this.’ And I think for Ann Walker, she must have thought my money will always play a role when it comes to marriage. She also had a male fortune hunters at her door, and looking around her possible candidates, she decided it’s the woman of them I love most and so she went for Anne Lister.

Holly: No, I think it’s fair to say that Ann Walker came across that she was pretty dazzled by Anne Lister and the fact that she gave up of marriage with a man was a clear sign to Anne Lister, that she was different to all of the other women who she’d previously been with.

Angela: Yes, yeah. Because the love of her life Marianna Belcombe was not as we know. 

Holly: So there is a plaque in York that celebrates the life of Anne Lister, and it reads ‘Lesbian and diarist took sacrament here to seal her union with Ann Walker, Easter 1834.’ What is the story behind the plaque?

Angela: Yeah, you know, I’m not very happy with this plaque. 

Holly: It’s been a bit controversial in many ways the plaque hasn’t it?

Angela: Very controversial. I know it has been to be exchanged, because first the word lesbian was missing. Who didn’t think about that?

Holly: The first modern lesbian, and they just thought ‘um…no’

Angela: No, also not. But you see, this plaque tells us more about us today than about those back then. It tells us about gay marriage today and our wish to find traces in history of this. But I think it’s it doesn’t need what happened in 1834, between Anne Lister and Ann Walker. First, there was no priest, there was no public blessing, no nothing. And as the quote says, it’s not even sure that Ann Walker thought the same. So it’s just a moment when we know that Anne Lister prayed for a blessing of the union. This is not what I would call a gay marriage. For example, a year later, the two of them publicly laid this ground stone of a hotel to be erected or not exactly, Anne Lister also inherited Northgate House, which was great house downtown in Halifax. Anne Lister wanted to turn it into a hotel and build a casino as she called it – a kind of a restaurant amendment to the house – and both women, Anne Lister and Ann Walker, together laid that ground stone and made speeches both. They made it together as an open couple. In my view, it would be much better to put that blue plaque at Northgate, because they’re really both women purposely showed themselves in public as a couple investing their money together in a project they shared. So this is much more undisputable as a fact than this wish for a blessing Anne Lister had in that church. But, as a fact, they both thought that I think February 10 in 1834, was their marriage. They celebrated that as the date of their union.

Holly: Yes, that’s what you wrote in your book that they’d spent a night together and they decided that that was going to be the moment of their union and they exchanged rings and then at this church that now has the plaque, they had not a blessing, but it was more…they just went to church together and prayed together 

Angela: and took the sacrament

Holly: and took a sacrament. 

Angela: Anne Lister had her thoughts. 

Holly: It says she prayed for a happy union and that Ann didn’t quite do the same. 

Angela: So this is not what I would call a gay marriage. And in her diaries, Anne Lister makes it very clear and outspoken to herself, that she is talking herself into being in love with Ann Walker. And this was the problem of this marriage right from the beginning and it took Ann Walker, let’s say two years or so to realise that Anne Lister never really was in love with her. While Ann Walker, for a while, really was deeply in love with Anne Lister, it was never the other way around. And so there was this…it was not balanced, their relationship was not balanced and so their marriage was not quite a happy one and they quarrelled a lot. After three years, Ann Walker thought about leaving Anne Lister, but at least Anne could not afford to lose Ann Walker’s money. So she always managed to talk Ann Walker her out of her plans to leave her. They found out that while travelling, they quarrelled less. So that was a possibility to spend better time with each other. So it’s a bit of a sad.

Holly: You mentioned that there was a love language of wills, let’s put it that way. So how would the wills written? How they would inherit and what they would inherit upon someone else’s death.

Angela: So it took Anne Lister a couple of years, and several steps, until Ann Walker finally agreed to change her will and Anne Lister did the same. And they both stated that after death, the benefits of the fortune of the deceased would go to the surviving partner, making sure the surviving partner had more money left, but they would not inherit this fortune. So when the second partner also would have died, the inheritance would go to their respective family.

Holly: Yeah, I find it very interesting, the story of the hotel event that they were out there openly as a couple. And I know that they took a pew together at church and so were openly at church together as a couple. What was the wider public response to that courage of being out there as an open couple.

Angela: They got really hostile responses. For example, some mock announcements in the papers congratulating Captain Tom Lister of Shibden Hall to his marriage with Ann Walker Lidgate which was printed in several newspapers all over Yorkshire. So the whole of Yorkshire laughed about this female couple because it was very easy to guess

Holly: Yes who it was

Angela:…Captain Tom of Shibden Hall

Holly: It’s not subtle

Angela: No and interestingly enough, as long as Anne Lister lived alone in Shibden Hall, not with a female companion, she was comparatively out. In a surprising way, she openly stated she would never marry a man. But asked rhetorically, why not spend life with a female companion? The neighbourhood even knew that she planned to live with a female companion one day, and they made jokes about her, but polite jokes. So up until the moment Ann Walker moved in, in Shibden Hall. Anne Lister was accepted kind of in her oddities, oddities was the term she herself described, her male feelings, her male desires. But the moment Ann Walker moved in the attitudes of society, this rather liberal tolerating attitudes, change dramatically. Now, it turned out, Anne Lister had always been serious. She wanted to spend her life with a female companion. But now it became obvious that Anne had taken over and walkers money. And now with Ann Walker’s money in control of Anne Lister, the response of patriarchy was strong. This was something not to be allowed, simply looked over, like up until the moment of when these two women were together. And so they both got these strong responses and one has to admire the strength and the humour have both to stand this. Because one can see these long months on the continent, they travelled a lot together, also as rescue for society in Halifax. So they, at some points, they fled, I think, because the problems at home with society, and with money, and with all the works done, or started with these investments, there was quite something to do and to be angry about and many worries. So travelling was a way to get rid of all this. And as I told you, before, they quarrelled less when they were abroad, maybe also because they were not as closely looked at abroad than at home they have more freedom. But all in all, they were very courageous, to stand as an kind of, in our words, open couple out in society.

Holly: And what was it like for them in Shibden Hall living together?

Angela: Not easy. In the beginning they share a room and the father and the aunt and the sister Marian all were still living there. First the father, then the aunt died, then Marian moved out so they finally had this space for them. Ann Walker always missed her Georgian manor houses – actually she owned 3 of them, all more spacey, more elegant, more modern than this old hut Shibden Hall which did not look like the nice house that visitors see today. Tourists today see the house like it became envisaged by Anne Lister. Anne Lister herself and Ann Walker never saw it that way. So it was a very old house and Ann Walker did not like it a lot. Quarrelling about these improvements of Shibden Hall was part of their day-to-day routine for example.

Holly: Yes, it was when these quarrels were significant that they decided to take their big trip in 1839 – what happened on this trip?

Angela: Back in the…it must have been 1830 so let’s say some 10 years earlier, the brother of a former love of Anne Lister, Norcliffe, had told Anne that ‘whoever has not seen St. Petersburg has seen nothing’ and since then Anne Lister had wanted to see Russia. The one in 1832 she was really on her way when she broke off in Denmark. She still had this fantasy ‘I need to see Russia’ and she convinced Ann Walker to come along. In private, Anne Lister harboured the idea that from Moscow she would go onto Persia. But she would not tell Ann Walker because she was afraid that Walker would then say ‘no darling, we won’t do that.’ So Ann Walker started this journey thinking they will make their way to Moscow and then come back. They travelled in their own carriage, renting horses post-station to post-station. They were the last generation who went to buy horses and carriages. They tried the first trains when they existed, the mother of all Manchester-Liverpool line but Anne Lister thought ‘this has no future.’ So this system of travelling on post routes was very developed through the whole of Europe up until Moscow, even beyond, and they made their way through Dover-Calais, the North of France, the Netherlands, Germany, taking the ferry from Lübeck to Copenhagen and this was there from then on they took their time, because it was new for Anne Lister too, and then they enjoyed Sweden, parts of Norway – actually they wanted to see the fjords of Norway’s west coast but it was raining endlessly. So, they broke off and made a nice tour of middle Sweden instead. Then they arrived in Stockholm. They were enchanted by its situation on all these islands in the Baltic sea. Took the ferry with their carriage to Finland, back then Tsarist Russia, and then they are all the way on the south coast of Finland up until St. Petersburg which they enjoyed like every traveller from Europe but felt that ‘this is still Europe.’ So the city that Anne Lister really fell in love with was Moscow which they then arrived. They spent 4 months there in the winter of 1839/40 and Anne Lister really fell in love with this mixture of orient and occident so the best parts of Europe and Asia all in one city. Meeting there, especially on the markets, people they thought almost all the world, including China and Persia. Anne Lister felt from Moscow she got to see something from the world even in parts that she would never set her foot. So that was a great experience, really to both of them. But Ann Walker thought they would go back now, I assume she thought they would now go back via Kiev and Berlin, taking the southern route back. But Anne Lister would not. Now she came out with her plan ‘let’s go on until Persia’ and they had a serious row and Ann Walker would not talk to Anne Lister for over a week I think. But in the end she had to give up. She could have gone home alone but she would not and Anne Lister would not go home so…

Holly: There was only really one choice.

Angela: Really only one choice and now comes one of these big surprises, when I check the dates you learn that they leave Moscow, the beginning of February 1840. You think, February? Moscow? It must have been snow and winter but fact is it was much easier to travel in Russia in winter in these days because the streets in summer were so bad that it was clear that they could not use their English carriage any longer it was much too heavy for the ways that they would plan to go in summer. Now in winter everyone used sledges, troika they were called, and with them it was very easy and very quick comparatively. So they stored their English carriage at their English hotel in Moscow, most of their luggage as well and hired new servants, new Russian servants, and bought new equipment that was suitable for this winter journey and bought two of these Russian troikas and went on. Now this is incredible, they went east on the ice and snow, meeting in Nizhny Novgorod the frozen Volga and on the frozen Volga, it took them 2000km to reach Astrakhan on the Caspian Sea.

Holly: Oh my gosh.

Angela: Yeah if you imagine this, just travelling on a sledge on the frozen Volga – how adventurous! 

Holly: It’s so adventurous for them both!

Angela: Yes and not only Anne Lister, Ann Walker was sitting next to her and the moment they left Moscow, they were stared at because no one ever had seen two English ladies, still wearing their English dresses. These wear areas now, regions, where very rarely a man from Western Europe came along – sometimes a tradesman, sometimes a botanist and that’s it. No one ever travelled there for tourist reasons. Women from Western Europe never had been seen there. Anne Lister and Ann Walker [stuck] to their English dresses and so one so they were really stared at, looked at, which allowed them to stare back which they did very openly. Anne Lister describes really wonderfully encounters with local people and being women it allowed them to meet women in their homes. To compare what Anne Lister is writing about Russia and the Caucasus I also read, for example, books by German botanists travelling at exactly the same time in the same regions like these English ladies. But there men always complain that they have not seen that much of women, that they know nothing of family life because as men they were not allowed to enter. But being women, Anne Lister and Ann Walker saw even more than travelling men – isn’t that a surprise? But they arrived in Astrakhan on the Caspian Sea just before the snow melted so just in time and in Astrakhan  they put their little wagons on wheels and they reached the foot of the greater Caucasus. This was warzone. They went through Chechnya, for example. They were everywhere, every region of the Caucasus where today there is war and where travel books tell you, you do not go there. Anne Lister and Ann Walker went there and, as a biographer and travelling in their footsteps, it was amazing for me to realise that the conflicts are still the same, that Anne Lister and Ann Walker encountered if you travel into these countries. Me and my wife, we were not daring enough to visit Chechnya for example. But they made it over the great Caucasus and they ended up in Tbilisi in spring 1840 – today the capital of Georgia – and they liked it a lot. In the beginning, they were quite exhausted but they recovered and Anne Lister, after four months tried to find her way to Persia. But she there had to learn that Persia really was out of her reach, even for a woman of her strong will. It was impossible as a tourist to travel through war zones so she convinced Anne Walker to go to Baku in Azerbaijan which was also Russian back then and where a postal route still went. They had a marvellous journey, particularly Ann Walker who did not want to come at all, really enjoyed Baku and always through the lens of Anne Lister’s diaries so we cannot be quite sure, it seems that Ann Walker enjoyed this journey through the Caucasus. Although she had not wanted to come, she enjoyed it there. She liked the sun, the fruits. She got along with people whereas as Anne Lister more and more seemed to be harassed. She wanted to see this. She wanted to see that. She had her plan while Ann Walker was able to relax and see from moment to moment, day to day what is possible. They saw amazing things when it comes to historical sites, nature, mountain areas. I tried to see everything they saw in Azerbaijan and I have seen almost everything but not everything because even today, at one time I would have needed horse to get and I am not a rider as Anne Lister and Ann Walker were so these courageous two ladies from their nineteenth-century have seen more than I as a twentieth-century woman with a hired car.

Holly: I mean it’s a testament to their adventurous nature and just how far they went together.

Angela: At some point they left their Russian troikas on the way because they wanted to explore the mountain regions on horseback so they hired some horses and local guides. For roughly some five weeks or so, everything went well and they saw some extraordinary things in remote regions and then, all of a sudden in August 1840, Anne Lister’s diaries stop and we know that five weeks later she was dead. We do not know exactly what happened in between but she caught an infectious disease and she died and Ann Walker had the horrible task to bring the body back which she did but it must have been a nightmare. 

Holly: Yeah I mean it must have been such a profound loss for Ann Walker, to loose not only her wife but also Anne Lister who was such a presence. It must have been incredibly complicated and difficult for her.  

Angela: It’s too bad that we do not know anything. Ann Walker has not written about it, though at least we haven’t found anything – no traces. It seems that she did not utter a word about it later so it’s completely our imagination what happened and how she coped. You know it’s true what you say, this could be one of her reactions, another could have been perhaps she felt liberated. Anne Lister was such a dominating partner and in this journey, Ann Walker had to do what Anne Lister wanted to. So, although Ann Walker coped with it and got along and enjoyed this journey, she had no choice but to follow Anne Lister and so finally there may have been kind of relief next to the horror and trauma and sadness and feeling of loss and everything.

Holly: So she returned to Shibden Hall and what was life like for her there?

Angela: Very very difficult. She had to return to Shibden Hall because in the meantime she had rented out her three Georgian manor houses.

Holly: For quite a long tenancy as well hadn’t she so she couldn’t get out of it.

Angela: Yeah, so the only place she had to go was Shibden Hall but she now this right to go there because of Anne Lister’s will. But the Lister family, or the branch of the Lister family which one day after Ann Walker’s death would inherit Shibden Hall, were impatient and they did not want to have Ann Walker spend her whole life [there] as she was young. So they didn’t want to have to wait until she died, they wanted to have Shibden Hall and its incomes at once so they started to quarrel in court. This was one side of her enemies, the other was her brother-in-law, this Captain Sutherland who had married her sister Elizabeth. He wanted now to gain Ann Walker and Anne Lister’s fortune so she was surrounded my men who somehow wanted to have her and Anne Lister’s money and everything. It took Captain Sutherland not very long to convince a doctor and the local police that Ann Walker needs mental treatment and against her will, they took her from Shibden Hall and into an asylum in York for mental diseases where she had two years before she could leave there again. So I think it can be safely said that after losing your partner in the middle of nowhere, very far away from home, bring a body back on a journey that took her seven months. When Ann Walker arrived back in Halifax she was shaken I think so it really looks like Captain Sutherland wanted to make use of the situation of a frail Ann Walker who could not resist against such attacks.

Holly: Yeah. So she ended up dying at the family home in 1854 and so obviously nowadays we know the Anne Lister and Ann Walker story through Gentleman Jack, that’s what bought their story to the whole wider public, but what do you see as their legacy for the public nowadays?

Angela: I think the TV series is great in the sense that much money was spent to make a broad audience feel with a lesbian couple of the Nineteenth Century and everybody wants Anne and Ann being and in primetime TV this is simply great and Suranne Jones is a splendid Anne Lister.

Holly: Isn’t she? I think she’s great.

Angela: She’s great, yeah. So there’s much to say in favour of the TV series. Now here comes my but. There was not such romance as the TV show tells us. Anne Lister was a selfish person, especially in her later years. She played with Anne Walker and she had her own agenda in marrying her as we have talked now a lot about it. So I wonder if there is really a legacy of this couple because they are also…it’s simply a sad story or many sad sides to their story. So I think what we talked before, for example this moment when they both laid this ground stone for this hotel at Northgate, their being out as a couple even in 1835 – this is really a legacy, their courage. But it shows us also – how should I put that – for example with the story of that blue plaque in York, it tells us so much about our wishes. History is always seen from today’s eyes and I realised when I wrote Anne Lister’s biography, how much I wanted to have a positive heroine. Someone to worship and a real idol you know but Anne Lister was a human being. She was not easy to love for Ann Walker for example and she is not easy to love today. She was an anti-feminist. She was anti-democratic. She was a strict Tory. She was against unions, against her workers. In a way you could even blame her to be a misogynist. So she is a difficult historical person and not easy to love and she makes us clear that we have a story with her and she is obviously not interested in us any longer. So use her to build our stories and I think this is part of this legacy. For example as a feminist or a lesbian, all of the big figures in our history have been human beings with all of their flaws that come along so next to the courage she had of being kind of open out is this telling us more about ourselves as a legacy.

Holly: Yeah, leaving the diaries in themselves is just an incredible feat to be able to able to have and as a biographer it really leaves you with such rich material to work with.

Angela: I really felt like all the girls Anne Lister had – I first fell in love with her and then I realised that she betrayed me and not only with all these other girls but also with not being a feminist, not a democratic, being a person of her time.

Holly: Yeah they were certainly people of their time in an incredibly extraordinary situation that we know take so much meaning from. So thank you so much for talking to me about a few of Anne Lister’s loves but mainly Anne and Ann Walker because they’re extraordinary in many ways so thank you so much.

Angela: Thank you so much for inviting me.

Holly: And thank you so much for listening. I hope that you enjoyed this episode, I know I thoroughly enjoyed talking to Angela about Ann and Anne. I think my favourite part was definitely listening to Angela talk about their travels because one, it just sounded like they saw such amazing things and two, because I think it just highlights what remarkable women both Anne Lister and Ann Walker were. They were, I think, a really courageous couple and their legacy is so powerful but I also found it fascinating delving a little deeper into the realities of their love story. Of course I think it’s really important to remember that the main source material that we have about their lives together is Anne Lister’s diary and whilst this is an incredible insight into their world, I also think that it is important to remember that the role of a diary is to document unfiltered personal thoughts. It was private to Anne, hence the coding, and therefore I think should be remembered as an incredibly one-sided and possible reactionary account of their relationship. I’d love to know more about Ann Walker because I find her very compelling. I mean she took a leap which was not in a way as significant a jump for Anne Lister to live openly together, to be visible together like at church and at the hotel. I think she’s really a very interesting person to learn about and I’m sure though that we will be learning more and more now as time goes on with all this wonderful interest that’s ever-growing around this complicated and striking and wonderful couple. 

Angela’s book Gentleman Jack: A biography of Anne Lister, Regency Landowner, Seducer and Secret Diarist published by Serpent’s Tail is available on Amazon and at Waterstones and I’m sure at any good bookshop. It’s a particularly good read if you’d like to learn more about all of the loves in Anne’s life, not just the ones we have touched on in more or less detail in this episode. And well Angela also honestly is just an absolute darling who really is curious about Anne Lister and her many many facets.

If you have enjoyed this episode please rate, review and subscribe to the podcast wherever you are listening to it now. I love reading your reviews, it warms my soul, fills me with love, so I would be very grateful always to hear your thoughts on the podcast. As always, if Past Loves has become your current love and you want to hear more about history through the lens of the most romantic tales from the past, be sure to follow me on Instagram @pastlovespodcast where there are even more stories to enjoy.

Thank you again for listening – until soon!

4 thoughts on “Gentleman Jack – The True Love Story Between Anne Lister and Ann Walker

  1. Really enjoyed reading this.
    I fell in live with Ann Lister but gas I read more I realised I wouldn’t have liked her .
    I would have found her over bearing.
    I would not have agreed with her politics.
    I did find her very intresting


  2. I’m currently bingeing Gentleman Jack and I must say I love the charming Anne Lister as much as I hate the selfish Anne Lister. I’m curious about how things will turn out in the show, considering we don’t really know the events that happened when Anne Lister stopped writing and then died. If the show is fortunate enough to reach that part of the narrative, I’m excited to know how the creators will handle it!

    Thanks for this episode! I really enjoyed working while this played in the background.


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