Anne Lister’s diaries have been described as “the Dead Sea Scrolls of lesbian history”. They’re on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, and include commentary on the major national and international events of the day as well as details about her personal life. Anne was also a successful businesswoman, a traveller, a climber (and a social climber!), responsible for a huge amount of work at her family home, Shibden Hall near Halifax, and married (“celebrated marital commitment with”) her final partner, Ann Walker by their taking communion together on Easter Sunday in 1834. She went against everything that society expected of women of her time and her class, but she seems to have been completely comfortable in her own skin – and her own masculine-style black clothes. What a fascinating character! Ann Walker’s also interesting, although her story’s much sadder: she suffered from depression and, after Anne’s death, was tricked into leaving Shibden Hall, declared insane and taken to (as it would then have been called) an asylum. Suranne Jones, Sophie Rundle and the rest of a strong, Northern-led 🙂 cast are doing an excellent job of portraying their story.
I did wonder if – this being the cosy Sunday 9pm period drama slot – the scriptwriters might be tempted to make Anne Lister into a much nicer person than she actually was. Admirable, yes – likeable, not so much! And if they might be tempted to turn her relationship with Ann Walker into a fairytale romance. It wasn’t! But no – it was pretty much warts and all. Well done to Sally Wainwright and the rest of the scriptwriting team!
Black mark for anachronistic language, though. People in the 1830s did not go around saying “Either way works for me” or “They’re a handful”. But, especially after ITV 1’s Victoria had Robert Peel sounding like he came from the East Midlands rather than Bury, gold star for getting most of the characters in this Halifax-based series genuinely sounding like they came from Yorkshire!
The series opened in 1832, when Anne was 41, so there’s a huge amount about her life that we’re not going to get to see. Maybe an opening for a prequel some time? We won’t see her having affairs with other girls whilst at school. We won’t hear her thoughts on the Peterloo Massacre. We won’t see her travels to the French court. But, hey, you can only fit so much into eight hours!
In 1832, she was returning to Shibden Hall, which she’d inherited from her uncle, after a long time away. I went to Shibden Hall on Saturday, and so I particularly enjoyed seeing the house and gardens on TV on Sunday. It was really nice to see a TV series that was actually filmed where it was set, rather than Budapest filling in for Virginia or whatever! Immediately, we got the impression that Anne was a real force of nature – everyone was all of a doodah about her return!
And then we saw so many different facets of her fascinating personality that every scene seemed to bring something different. She was a snob – talking about “shabby little Shibden” (having seen what the panelling was like before she did it up, she had a point, but still!) and clearly feeling that she belonged in far higher social circles than those she’d be mixing in there. She was a proto-feminist – and made an interesting point about the 1832 Reform Act enshrining in law the fact that women were debarred from voting because of their gender, a point that was to be made repeatedly in the 1901-1914 era, when there was talk of bringing in universal male suffrage without giving the vote to any women. She showed affection for her family, yet her main concern about the death of her groom seemed to be scientific interest in how death actually came about. She also showed her affection for her horse, but was tough enough to put him down when it was necessary – shooting him herself when her new groom couldn’t bring himself to do so.
She was a businesswoman, seeing new opportunities such as developing coal mines, and so hard-headed that she had no compunction about evicting an elderly tenant whom she felt was unable to farm efficiently. And she was fine about collecting the rents herself, and even sitting in the pub to do so. Yet we saw how deeply she could feel, and how she was broken-hearted that her former lover had dumped her in order to marry a man.
We saw that through flashbacks. I’m never sure that flashbacks really work in period dramas, but Pride and Prejudice used them, so I suppose they’re OK! We also got moments when we just got Anne’s thoughts as a monologue, as if she were addressing the viewer – which was a bit weird, but I don’t know how else we could have “seen” her thoughts. She wrote everything down. In code. Brilliant! And what a good job, from a historian’s viewpoint, that the code was cracked, and that the relative who first read her journals decided not to get rid of them – as he was advised to do by a friend who thought that they might bring scandal on the family.
Being broken-hearted didn’t stop her from spending the night with another former lover. She had rather a lot of them! But she wanted a wife. A couple of days ago, there was a protest march calling for equal marriage in Northern Ireland. One of the women marching summed it up very well when she told a Sky News reporter that no-one was asking for special treatment, just that everyone should have the same rights as everyone else. Anne Lister wanted to find a life partner, and she wanted that partnership to be a formal commitment, and she saw that the fact that that would be with a woman rather than a man shouldn’t be an issue – at a time when the word “lesbian” didn’t exist and so many gay (to use the modern term) people ended up in heterosexual marriages. She wanted a wife.
Just going back to the issue of the relationship between her and Ann Walker not being a fairytale romance, I’d like to think they did genuinely love each other, but Ann Walker’s money was certainly a big attraction – as this first episode made crystal clear. And it’s known that they argued over finances, that Ann felt neglected because so much of Anne’s time was taken up with business and politics and that Anne wasn’t as understanding as she might have been about Ann’s bouts of depression.
I feel rather sorry for Ann, and I was glad to see that the programme did deal sympathetically with her. We didn’t really get much idea of her from herself, it was all about what other people thought about her, but that was probably quite accurate. She was very vulnerable – a wealthy single woman, prey to fortune hunters and without the strength and confidence that she probably needed, and struggling with depression. Sophie Rundle played her very well – and the supporting cast were excellent too. We met various Lister and Walker relatives, and two of Anne’s former lovers. And we also got to see the lives of the tenants and the servants – which is a staple of period dramas theswe days, but wasn’t always. But it was always Anne Lister around whom everything revolved. Emotional one minute, hard-headed the next. What a complex and intriguing personality.
However, one big facet of her personality wasn’t shown, and that was her religious side. She’s known to have had a strong Anglican faith, and evidently found no problem with being a practising Christian and being in a same sex relationship. Nearly two centuries later, the subject of religion (not just Christianity, but religion generally) and sexuality is still contentious, despite all the progress made in gay rights in other areas of life. It’s something which causes a lot of distress to a lot of people, and is an area in which little progress seems to be being made. In that respect, Anne Lister was ahead of our times, never mind her own. I really hope the BBC aren’t going to pussyfoot around this. Maybe it’ll come up next week.
Sadly, Anne died aged only 49 and only six years after her marriage to Ann, of a fever caused by an infected insect bite whilst travelling in Georgia (the one in the Caucasus, not the one in America!). By the terms of Anne’s will, Ann should have had a life interest in Shibden Hall – which she deserved because it was her money that paid for it to be done up, as well as because of her relationship with Anne! – before it passed to some Lister cousins. However, Ann, who struggled with mental health problems, found it difficult to cope with the pressure of running both Shibden Hall and her own property, and probably also with the gossip about her relationship with Anne. She was forcibly removed from Shibden Hall by her own family and the local constable and taken to an asylum in York, before eventually returning to her childhood home.
So there isn’t going to be a happy ending to this story – but (as well as the Shibden Hall estate, which is rather a nice place for a half-day out) there’s Anne Lister’s legacy to history, which is an important one. That’s recognised by the fact that there are blue plaques commemorating her life both at Shibden Hall and at the church in York where she and Ann Walker had their ceremony. And this series is about to make her very well-known. Just spare a thought for Ann as well, eh? But Anne’s the character who grabs your attention, and Suranne Jones really did a very good job of portraying that. This looks set to be an excellent series.