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!

The Life of Zamenhof by Aleksander Korzhenkov, translated by Ian M Richmond, edited by Humphrey Tonkin

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I meant to read this after the BBC 2 “Back to School” series mentioned Esperanto, the language created by Ludovic Zamenhof, being taught in British schools in the 1920s, but I’ve only just got round to it. Zamenhof’s ideas of creating an international language and a universal religion/moral code – within sovereign states – were fascinating, even if his theory that it might put an end to ethnic and religious hatred was sadly rather naïve, but the translation and transliteration in this book were so bizarre that they kept distracting me from what the narrative was actually saying. The translator seemed to have managed to mix Russian up with both Lithuanian and Greek, and Polish with both Belarusian and Hebrew … which possibly rather proved the point that an international second language used by everyone might be very useful!

There were some good points made about the issues caused by different languages being used within the same state, and the issues faced by both individuals and states which use a language that isn’t widely understood anywhere else, and even about whether or not using accents above and below letters causes eye strain; but it was a very short book and didn’t really go into any of them properly. English has become the international language now, although apparently the growth of internet resources have given Esperanto a bit of a boost; but the idea of creating an artificial language for everyone to use, and hoping that it would bring about international peace and unity, was very interesting and ambitious … but how the blurb on the back cover could describe this as an “excellent translation” is beyond me!

All right, I suppose putting “Cherson” rather than “Kherson” could be classed as just being old-fashioned – like putting “Cracow” rather than “Krakow”, which the translator also did – so he probably hadn’t really got Russian (or indeed Ukrainian) mixed up with Greek; but it still looked odd. And, whilst it’s incredibly annoying, it’s not uncommon for authors to refer to Vilnius and Kaunas by their Russian names of Vilna and Kovno, but this book correctly referred to them by their Lithuanian names and yet referred to Lithuania by its Russian name of Litva. No-one says “Litva” when they’re speaking/writing in English!

Furthermore, he Belarusian city of Hrodna is usually referred to in English by its Polish name of Grodno, because it’s only been part of Belarus since the Second World War, and that can be excused, but combining the two as “Grodna” looks silly. The Hebrew month of Kislev is just Kislev: it is definitely not “Kislevo”. “Kislevo”?! OK, maybe all this stuff shouldn’t have annoyed me as much as it did, but it’s a bit daft to write a book about the importance of language and then make such a muddle with languages! Also, the term “Austria-Hungary” didn’t come into being until 72 years after the Third Partition of Poland: it was definitely not in use at the time, and so should not be used as if it were!

Anyway. Lazar/Ludovic Zamenhof was born in Bialystok in 1859. Unfortunately, the book referred to his birthplace as “Bialystock” all the way through. That’s not bad translation or bad transliteration: it’s just bad spelling! It also mentioned that Bialystok, because of its textile industry, was sometimes called “the Manchester of the North”. Fortunately, Manchester was spelt correctly, or else the book would have been going straight in the bin!

It really is a shame about the issues with the place names etc, because the subject matter was genuinely interesting. In Zamenhof’s time, the majority language in Bialystok was Yiddish, but there were also many people living there who spoke Polish, Russian, German or Belarusian. Zamenhof’s family spoke Russian, rather than Yiddish, and he also learnt Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French and English during his youth. Then he spent much of his adult life living in Warsaw, as well as some time studying in Vienna. You can certainly see why he thought a universal language was a good idea from a communications viewpoint. I always find these multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multilingual, multicultural cities of Central and Eastern Europe, before the events of the twentieth century ripped their communities apart, fascinating to study, but they must sometimes have been rather confusing to live in! And he really did have these genuine idealistic beliefs that, by improving communication between different groups of people, a universal language could create some sort of brotherhood of man. Siblinghood of person, I should say!

And he really got into it. He was an eye doctor, but – rather unfortunately for his wife and children, especially as he was living off his wife’s dowry rather than concentrating on his work – he spent a huge amount of time developing Esperanto, and then, despite not being from the sort of background where he’d have had a lot of contacts, he managed to get people all over Europe and beyond interested in it. Like many rather “different” ideas in Victorian times, it became a bit of a cult thing, as we’d say now, with magazines and societies and annual conferences. And, at one point, it even got to the stage where the French Assemblee Nationale debated a bill about introducing Esperanto into schools – and, as we saw from the BBC 2 programme, it actually was taught in some British schools, although Zamenhof died in 1917 so never lived to see that. It really is very impressive that this man’s idea spread as widely as it did.

And then his ideas started to go beyond language: he came up with the ideas of “Hillelism” and “Homaranism”, which would create a unified humanity in which, although people lived in separate geopolitical states, everyone would speak the same language and follow the same religion. It’s the sort of thing that sounds completely and utterly bonkers and yet completely and utterly brilliant at the same time! He wasn’t talking about some completely unworkable and doomed idea like a United States of Europe, and he wasn’t talking about abolishing existing languages and religions: he recognised that there have to be individual states, and that people are going to stick to their “own” languages and religions, but he genuinely seems to have believed that it was possible for everyone to learn a common language with which to communicate with people from different backgrounds, and for everyone to abide by a common moral code. Oh, if only!

The details of his ideas were for his time – well, obviously, but I just mean that they weren’t for our times. He thought that only an artificial language could become the international language. Well, English has rather proven that wrong. And he thought that countries should have names like “Parizregno” and “Petersburgregno”, to avoid alienating people who weren’t of the majority group living there – although presumably completely alienating anyone who didn’t live in the capital city! I can’t say that I’m really getting that, but he was living in an age of multi-ethnic empires. Imagine how bloody annoying it must have been if you were, say, a Czech living in Austria-Hungary or a Lithuanian living in the Russian Empire. But the basic ideas, especially the one about the common moral code – yep, what a wonderful idea in any era

So there was rather a lot of food for thought in a very short book. There was a lot that it didn’t say, but, to be fair, it was supposed to be a book about Zamenhof, and a very short one at that, rather than a book about all the associated matters which it only touched on briefly. I’m thinking mainly of the very brief reference to the idea of discriminating against people on the basis of language. It’s not something that we hear much about, compared to other forms of discrimination, but, if you look at the history of, say, Catalunya, Galicia and the Basque areas within the Spanish state, or Flemish-speaking parts of Belgium, or Wales, to name but a few examples, then it’s certainly an issue. The idea of a common second language in a multilingual state is another issue, the obvious example being the English language in India. It might also have been useful to have included a section on the persecution of speakers of Esperanto by Hitler, Stalin and Franco.

But it was only a very short book. And all the mix-ups with the place names just kept distracting me from what it was saying. Even so, it got me thinking

And all three of Zamenhof’s children were killed during the Holocaust. What a very sad post script to the life of a man who hoped to bring about world peace and unity. He hoped for a world without war. Maybe, one day, we’ll get there.