Queer History

Gentleman Jack: from History Workshop to HBO

Jill Liddington is an award-winning historian and writer. Author of One Hand Tied Behind Us (1978), The Long Road to Greenham (1979) and Rebel Girls (2006), Jill’s work has always championed women’s stories. In 1984 Jill discovered Anne Lister, and the discovery has shaped her life and career ever since.  Jill’s book exploring the life of the now famous Yorkshire diarist and seducer, Female Fortune: Land, Gender and Authority (1998) was chosen by Gentleman Jack writer Sally Wainwright as the book she would want with her to read if she was ever trapped on a desert island.

Here Jill reflects on her journey with Anne Lister – through the heady days of initial discovery, to the phenomenal global success of Gentleman Jack. Her reflections remind us how emboldening it can be to feel intimately connected to a character from the past, but also some of the conflicted feelings that come when a subject takes on a life of its own. The process of excavating historical subjects, particularly those subjects that have been for so long marginalised, can be a very personal one, and as historians we often feel a sense of ownership over the stories we have spent so long coaxing out of the archives. Jill’s essay makes for a relatable read for anyone who has ever felt left behind when their subject steps into the limelight.

Anne Lister of Shibden Hall

You never know what’s going to pop up. After Gentleman Jack (BBC1/HBO) proved such a global success this summer, I was persuaded to join Twitter. Since then, Anne Lister has occupied both my real and digital worlds. Tweets from around the globe, along with AL talks and walks, have kept me more than busy for the past months.

So it wasn’t till October that I had time to follow up an earlier suggestion about Anne Lister Facebook fan groups. I applied to join the Academic Research one, and was accepted. Apprehensively I clicked the link. And what was the first thing I saw? My History Workshop Journal article from spring 1993 – ‘Anne Lister of Shibden Hall, Halifax (1791-1840): Her Diaries and the Historians’!

I’m suddenly plunged back twenty-six years! I’m living in Halifax. And I’m dipping my toes into the rich Anne Lister archival labyrinth. Helena Whitbread’s I Know My Own Heart (1988) covered the early 1817-24 diaries. I wanted to know more. What else had Anne written, and how best to understand her?

History Workshop, both journal and network, had by then provided me with a welcoming radical history home. I still retain vivid memories of a mass gathering at Ruskin College, Oxford (where Raphael Samuel, the movement’s initiator and presiding spirit, taught history for many decades) in 1979 – everyone squeezed into an old church in Oxford. Was I really crouched on the floor next to the front? History Workshop provided me with networks and friendships which I still value today, forty years on. It allowed my rather unorthodox entry into history research (via a degree in politics, a brief stint in journalism, and a long plunge into feminism) seem really quite acceptable – rather than something needing apology.

From 1982 I worked at the University of Leeds’ Extra-Mural Department. Here I joined local and regional historians researching & teaching, following in the footsteps of the golden generation of E P Thompson and J F C Harrison. In 1985 we organized History Workshop at Leeds on the theme, ‘Whose History Is It Anyway?’ Another packed gathering.

1980s Halifax, hit by deindustrialization, was a fairly conservative (small ‘c’) town. Not a good place to be gay in then. I was teaching a New Opportunities for Women class there ~ when Whitbread’s book came out. It had tremendous impact, not least for documenting freedoms enjoyed by Anne Lister generations earlier. A local lesbian! I took the book into the classroom. My students all to a woman exclaimed: ‘We’d no idea that sort of thing went on round here! No one told us!’

Anne Lister soon had me absolutely gripped. I visited the Archives in Halifax Library, then took copies of the original diary pages into the classroom. My curiosity was now razor-sharp. Anne Lister was sitting on my very doorstep, Shibden Hall just two miles away. She had me in her fierce grip. A 1984 Guardian article had estimated the diaries at two million words. In 1990 I decided to check this word-length, doing mind-numbing lines-per-page calculations. It came to four million words, more than three time the length of Pepys’ diary!

Jill’s clipping from The Guardian, 17th February 1984

Whitbread had prioritized the coded sections. I wondered: was this really the best way to understand Anne Lister? Surely, to grasp exactly how she managed to do all she did, it was crucial to transcribe the handwritten passages to illuminate her historical context.

So I decided to go back and tell the story of the diaries’ melodramatic survival after Anne’s death in 1840; and of the heroic achievements of earlier generations of editors, all writing in an era when male homosexuality was criminalized and lesbianism effectively silenced. I plunged in deeper, selecting three sample years: 1806 (the earliest diaries, then only just discovered); 1819, to see Anne’s response to Peterloo; and 1832, to check her views on the Reform agitation.

But who would take my research? Anne Lister was quite a step away from my first love, Votes for Women. However, my links to History Workshop stood me in good stead. The journal had already published ‘Rediscovering Suffrage History’ (1977). So just maybe they’d look kindly at this side-step into something rather different? In fact, the volume 35 editors – Anna Davin, Bill Schwartz, and Jinty Nelson – responded enthusiastically. The article was published in spring 1993. With growing interest in everything Anne Lister, it was reissued by local press Pennine Pens as Presenting the Past (1994, 2010, 2019).

Shibden Hall from Buildings in the Town of Halifax, John Horner, 1835

I now focused in on the 1830s. In 1832, Anne Lister returned home to Shibden from her travels, betrayed by yet another woman’s marriage plans. She had inherited the estate and now came into her own. Lacking a fortune, she was in want of a wife. Re-acquaintance with neighbouring heiress Ann Walker changed her life – forever.

Among her many 1830s activities, Anne Lister developed Shibden’s small coalmines. I set to work, trudging in the Pennine drizzle to track down small neglected mines. Luckily, History Workshop Journal published my ‘Gender, authority and mining in an industrial landscape: Anne Lister 1791-1840′ (1996). Again, editors – this time David Feldman & Laura Gowing – were very supportive.

From this sprang Female Fortune: Land, Gender and Authority  (Rivers Oram Press 1998, 2019), my edited transcriptions and contextual introduction to the Anne Lister diaries 1833-36.

Female Fortune: Land, Gender and Authority (1998)

Then in 2001 I met scriptwriter Sally Wainwright who had grown up near Halifax. A mutual friend had given her a copy of Female Fortune. Sally was immediately gripped. Working together, we shared our enthusiasms. However, the time was not yet ripe for an ambitious TV drama series. I still worked in Continuing Education (as Leeds now named it). And Sally began writing a series of award-winning drama scripts, including Last Tango in Halifax and Happy Valley. I worked on the 1832 diaries: Nature’s Domain (2003). But any TV project had to be put on hold.

Time passed. Interest in Anne Lister grew. And continued to grow. Indeed, in 2011 Anne’s diaries were added by UNESCO to its UK Memory of the World register. Global recognition indeed!

However Sally’s project never died. In 2014, I was surprised and delighted that on ‘Desert Island Discs’ she chose Female Fortune as the book she’d take with her. And in 2016, she approached me again, saying she was ready to return to Anne Lister. By then of course she was an award-winning scriptwriter, so the BBC were very interested indeed!

In 2005 Continuing Education at Leeds (like so many of the great extra-mural departments) had closed, amid much mourning. But for me it meant I could now work as historical consultant, reshaping my research to make it accessible to the script team. And I was delighted that the production company’s contract stated that Female Fortune would be credited as the book that inspired Sally to write Gentleman Jack.

Then HBO came on board. The drama series’ dimensions grew much larger – and with it some stress. Feeling your research, nursed over many solitary years, seized on by other bigger beasts, you begin to wonder whether it was you who had laboriously read and transcribed the diaries. Other consultants took on my role. And I withdrew to contribute to historians’ celebration of the 2018 centenary of the Votes for Women victory.

Then in January 2019 I returned to Anne Lister. So this has been a roller-coaster year. I had worked with the BBC before, but never with HBO. I had absolutely no experience of what its global reach would mean. And at times, it felt daunting. However this summer, as Gentleman Jack aired in the US and UK, I grew more comfortable with my background role as historian; and with responding to the inevitable question from almost everybody I met: ‘So what did you think of Gentleman Jack?’

Suranne Jones as Anne Lister in Sally Wainwright’s Gentleman Jack

Now, in late 2019, I feel I can begin to enjoy the world-wide audiences genius scriptwriter Sally Wainwright reaches ~ far beyond the readerships of my books. On Twitter, I receive tweets from around the world. Most are complimentary, often flattering, and some ask detailed research questions.

The impact of Gentleman Jack on the cultural economy of Halifax has been staggering – and looks set to continue. Our small local authority, feeling the pinch of austerity, is absolutely delighted that visitor numbers to Shibden Museum have risen fourfold!

This summer, my Anne Lister walks round Halifax and Shibden booked up so rapidly they had to be repeated – and repeated. And this week I’m off to the US to meet some of Anne Lister’s many American fans. Also, thanks to an energetic New York organizer, an Anne Lister Birthday Festival next April has nearly sold out already – and I’m pleased to be speaking in Halifax Minster as part of the festivities.

eBook editions of both Presenting the Past and Nature’s Domain have recently been issued, with an eBook of Female Fortune in the pipeline. These reach readers right across the world to places a physical book could not. And, with its very positive portrayal of Anne Lister, Gentleman Jack has already changed women’s lives, especially those in the LGBTQ community, as a 2019 Facebook Fan Survey of Listermania reveals.

So, thank you Sally Wainwright. And thank you, History Workshop Journal for starting me out on this most surprising of research journeys! From a local New Opportunities class and exploring old coal mines in Halifax to changing women’s lives across the globe.

Anne Lister and I have come on a long journey. Hers stretched over two centuries, from local silencing of lesbian lives to world-wide adoration. Mine over three decades, from solitary archival research to having Female Fortune up among on-screen credits. From feeling conflicted when Anne Lister seemed taken away from me, to reuniting with her, so I can enjoy my contribution to the success of genius Sally Wainwright’s Gentleman Jack.

For more on Jill, and Anne, see www.jliddington.org.uk. Follow Jill on Twitter @JillLiddington


  1. This article provides an excellent summary of Jill Liddington’s talk on her recent tour in the US in December of 2019. I had been taking notes, and then I saw this article on Twitter today (Dec. 10). Thank you.

  2. Great to have the history of a historian, her research, and her enthralling subject Anne Lister.
    And good to reealize hjow central History Workshop was across Jill’s trajectory or eresearch and dissemination.

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