Gentleman Jack by Anne Choma

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To mark LGBT History Month, the Historical Association has released a load of topical podcasts, the People’s History Museum is holding an “OUTing the past” exhibition, a diary written by a Georgian farmer from Wakefield is challenging traditional ideas about ordinary people’s historical views on LGBT rights … and, somewhat less interestingly, I am reviewing Anne Choma’s book about Anne Lister.  Anne is a fascinating character.  She was so unconventional in some ways, and yet so conservative in others.  Her diary itself is fascinating, how much she wrote down and the codes she devised.  And, whilst she’s not an overly appealing character, showing very little sympathy for those less well-off than her, her confidence in herself, and certainty about who was, in a society into which she never really fitted, are amazing.  How many people, regardless of their gender, sexuality, class or anything else, are really sure of themselves?   It’s particularly admirable, with the issues surrounding Margaret Court and Israel Folau dominating the sports websites recently, that she saw absolutely no conflict between her sexuality and her religious beliefs and practices.  Mr Wakefield farmer also has quite a bit to say in this area.

Ann Walker, Anne’s partner, was very different.  I sympathise so much with her struggles with anxiety and OCD.  I do not, however, sympathise with the idea that eating gruel would help.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a particularly good book.  It’s marketed as a biography, but it only really covers the period and subjects covered by the BBC drama series – and it’s even got a picture of Suranne Jones, rather than Anne Lister, on the front cover!   Nor is the standard of writing very high: there are some irritating grammatical errors.  It’s still interesting, though.  Oh, and the foreword was written in the Shibden Hall café, which does very nice scones 😊.

Anne Lister really was a fascinating combination of the unconventional and the conservative.  She wanted to marry a woman, but, like many a non-heroine in a Georgian novel, she was more interested in finding someone with money than in finding someone she loved.  She saw no reason why a woman couldn’t manage an estate and manage coal mines, but she had little sympathy for the working-classes, and opposed reform.  And that’s fair enough.  Everybody is an individual.  Being unconventional in one area of your life or one area of socio-politics does not mean that you cannot be conventional and conservative in others.  She was just herself – and it takes a lot of courage to be yourself.

I was hoping to find out more about her ideas on politics, but there’s very little about them in this book.  It says that she liked eating parkin (as do I, although in my case only on Bonfire Night because it’s too fattening to eat regularly) and that she was obsessed with bowel movements (as were a lot of people in the 19th century), but it doesn’t say what she thought about the Peterloo Massacre, Catholic Emancipation or the Corn Laws, just a vague mention of her opposing the Great Reform Act.  Nor does it say much about her travels.  There’s quite a bit about her visit to Copenhagen, but nothing much about her other trips.  It only really focuses on what was shown in the TV series.

There’s more about her diaries, though.  Anne Choma’s been involved in decoding them and transcribing them, and I’m sure she’s got far more to say about Anne Lister than is included in this book.  The codes used in the diary are intriguing in themselves: she went to all this trouble to devise a code for her own diaries.  I once had this great idea of devising a code which used types of fabric for numbers, so that I could rant in my diary (I was about 13 at the time) about how fat I was without having to write the actual numbers.  “I weigh satin stone cotton lbs!!”  Anne’s were a bit more complex!

Anne Choma also discusses how Anne Lister (there are a lot of Annes and Anns here!) used her diaries as some sort of self-improvement/self-study programme programme, to help her understand her own thinking … I’m not sure that terms like that really work when talking about someone writing in the 1820s and 1830s, but point taken!  I wonder what Anne’s various partners would have thought if they’d known she was writing so much detail about their “grubbling” in her diary, though.  Maybe they did!

She’s clearly studied Anne Lister’s diaries very carefully, and I’m sure that she could write a superb biography of her, but this isn’t it.  It’s just a companion book/marketing thing to go along with the TV series.  However, the TV series in itself is important, especially when considered in LGBT history month.  Those of us who remember the Sun screaming about “EastBenders” when the BBC introduced a same sex couple into EastEnders in the mid-1980s can look at the fact that a series about a same sex couple, Anne Lister and Ann Walker, can be shown in the iconic Sunday 9pm period drama slot and reflect on how far attitudes have come.  But I’d like to read a better biography of Anne Lister than this, because she merits one.  It takes guts to be yourself even if you fit into the conventions of the society in which you live.  It takes even more guts to be yourself if you’re a lesbian in a society which doesn’t even have a word for lesbians, a woman running an estate and businesses in a society which regards those as jobs for men … and, whilst it doesn’t sound very nice, if you’re someone who thinks you’re better than the circles in which you move.  And Anne Lister was all of those things.  “What a woman!” as Rhett Butler (the film version) would say!  What a woman!

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