Uncovering forgotten lesbian history

Jill Liddington’s research into Anne Lister’s diaries inspired the television series Gentleman Jack. John Morgan speaks to her about making a difference locally and the lost tradition of extramural university teaching

September 19, 2019
Anne Lister
Source: Alamy

In the late 1980s in Halifax, a former textile-manufacturing town in West Yorkshire, a group of women were taking a local history class with the University of Leeds. Their lecturer, Jill Liddington, told them about Anne Lister (1791-1840), a polymath who broke with conventions of female behaviour, and whose diaries record her plentiful sexual and romantic adventures with women – despite the obstacles of living in the early 19th century and in Halifax.

Liddington, now an honorary research fellow at Leeds, was herself living in Halifax. Her class was aimed at adults “who had missed out on educational chances first time round” – and they were thrilled by what they heard.

“This was 1988 and Halifax was quite a conservative [with] a small ‘c’ town,” she tells Times Higher Education. “The women students on the new opportunities class…were absolutely amazed that a woman so many generations earlier had been able to enjoy freedoms which they could scarcely dream of.”

Fired by her students’ enthusiasm, Liddington “got completely gripped” by the Lister diaries. She subsequently went into the archives to mine them and through years of work – wrestling with a voluminous beast of a diary and its coded sections – uncovered the stories of Lister’s later life. These included her courtship of, and remarkable union with, Ann Walker, in what was in effect a lesbian marriage.

Three decades later, Liddington’s work eventually led Sally Wainwright, one of the UK’s most celebrated scriptwriters, to create Gentleman Jack, the BBC-HBO dramatisation of Lister’ diaries that aired earlier this year. The credits describe it as “inspired by” two of Liddington’s books.

Liddington’s research, emerging partly from a vanished extramural tradition of university teaching delivered off-campus to adult students, starting taking form “as an article in History Workshop Journal in 1993”, and she had “no idea at all it would take off in the way it has done”. Yet the surge in interest in Lister that has followed Gentleman Jack has helped bring major cultural and economic benefits to Halifax.

Suranne Jones as Anne Lister and Sophie Rundle as Ann Walker in Gentleman Jack, the BBC adaptation based on Lister’s diaries
Suranne Jones as Anne Lister and Sophie Rundle as Ann Walker in Gentleman Jack, the BBC adaptation based on Lister’s diaries

After half an hour’s drive from Leeds climbing the Pennines on the M62, the exit road to Halifax emerges from a tunnel to give a view down a vertiginous drop into the Calder Valley, to the town’s Victorian chimneys and 1960s tower blocks, set against a mass of surrounding moors. Just outside the town is Shibden Hall and its estate, once owned by Anne Lister.

The Lister diaries had been the subject of a Guardian article in 1984, but knowledge of them remained largely confined to a small circle of Halifax antiquarians until 1988. Then Halifax historian Helena Whitbread brought out a book, I Know My Own Heart, which published sections of the diaries, including Lister’s descriptions of her lesbian relationships. The book had “tremendous impact” locally and nationally, according to Liddington, who used excerpts from it in the class she was teaching in Halifax for Leeds’ extramural department.

While Whitbread looked at the diaries between 1817 and 1824, covering the period when Lister was aged 26 to 33, Liddington wanted to find out more about the rest of her life. Before starting work in earnest, she needed to know what she was up against. The Guardian article had suggested that the diaries totalled 2 million words. But Liddington’s calculations indicated 4 million. She retreated from the library “aghast and gobsmacked” at the prospect of doing battle with a diary “three times the length” of Samuel Pepys’.

To add to the mountainous challenge, Lister had written roughly one-sixth of the diary – including the sections detailing her sex life – in code to keep it secret. An indirect descendant of Lister’s had cracked the code in the 1890s. Shocked by what he read, he considered burning the diaries but instead hid them behind a secret panel at Shibden, where they were discovered after his death in 1933. A friend who had worked on the diaries with him passed on the key to the code to Halifax library when it took possession of them. However, that still left a huge amount of coded text to be deciphered letter by letter.

Although there had been further work on the diaries after their rediscovery, all editors until Whitbread had been working in social contexts where “lesbianism was rendered almost unspeakable”, says Liddington.

Researching the diaries proved “compulsive” for her. In particular, it was “completely compelling going from the handwritten sections, which is what anybody could read if they opened the diary”, to the coded sections.

After her initial article in History Workshop Journal, Liddington went on to produce three books on different sections of the diaries: Presenting the Past (1994), Female Fortune (1998) and Nature’s Domain (2003). Two of these books were published by Pennine Pens, based in Hebden Bridge, a town known for its lesbian community, just up the road from Lister’s former home.

Although it is “absolutely extraordinary to find diaries of such length”, as Liddington points out, what makes them “so completely remarkable and possibly unique” are “the coded sections [about] her sexual relationships with other women”.

As an example, one diary entry included in Nature’s Domain describes a kissing session with Walker: “At last I got my right hand up her petticoats & after much fumbling got thro’ the opening of her drawers & touched (first time) the hair & skin of [her] queer – she never offered the least resistance…” When Walker expresses worries about their relationship, given “this sort of thing was so bad between two men” (certain male homosexual acts were punishable by hanging at the time), Lister records her matter-of-fact response: “I answered this in my usual way: it was my natural and undeviated feeling etc etc.”

Such detail has made the Lister diaries a valuable scholarly resource. Speaking on the BBC’s History Extra podcast earlier this year, University of York historian Hannah Greig called the publication of the sexual elements of the diaries a “landmark moment for history”. Writer Emma Donoghue has described them as the “Dead Sea Scrolls of lesbian history”.

The diaries show that Lister was not alone: she found plenty of women who shared her sexuality, demonstrating that a proto-community of lesbians already existed at that time. They also show a woman trying to create her own model of how a long-lasting relationship with another woman could operate, at a time when there were no examples of such relationships to emulate. Lister and Walker were “without a script”, as Liddington puts it in Nature’s Domain. Lister, she says, had conceived the idea that a relationship with a woman should “no longer be…transient” (she had been disappointed when previous lovers turned away from her for the financial security of heterosexual marriage) but “should be as good as a marriage, if not better”.

But the diaries have great scholarly value for reasons beyond their sexual content, revealing a highly unusual level of detail about everyday life, as well as about Lister’s intellectual life (Liddington notes that Charles Darwin and she read many of the same scientific journals, with the key difference being that women were barred from universities and learned societies) and her involvement with politics (Lister was an ardent Tory who sought to build up a Tory electorate among her tenants).

The “relationship between gender, class and – in particular in Anne Lister’s case – sexual identity” is a theme Liddington sees as running through all her work. She grew up in Surrey and “wasn’t destined for university” as she came to the end of her schooling, but “everything changed with the Robbins report” of 1963, which expanded higher education dramatically and gave her the chance to study at the new Keele University. Reading Sheila Rowbotham’s 1973 book Hidden from History: 300 Years of Women’s Oppression and the Fight Against It proved a revelation in explaining how history teaching “had omitted women or erased them or not given them their history”. Along with the 1974 BBC TV drama series Shoulder to Shoulder, about the suffragette movement, this set her on the path to researching women’s history.

Liddington moved north in 1974 and taught part-time at a technical college in Oldham, at the University of Manchester’s extramural department and through the Workers’ Educational Association, while carrying out research on suffragists in the Manchester area. She moved to Halifax in 1980 and still lives in the area.

Her other books include The Long Road to Greenham: Feminism and Anti-Militarism in Britain since 1820 (1989) and Rebel Girls: Their Fight for the Vote (2006), about the forgotten suffragettes of the North – both from feminist publishing house Virago. Her research has focused on the local: “I have always, with very few exceptions, in all my research and writing, dug where I stand.”

A similar approach is often taken in scriptwriting by Sally Wainwright, who grew up in Sowerby Bridge, just outside Halifax. She had visited Shibden with her family as a child, but without knowing anything of its former owner.

Wainwright later became interested in Lister and mentioned this to a schoolfriend, who knew Liddington and gave her a copy of Female Fortune. After Liddington and Wainwright met up and spent some time together walking around Shibden, discussing the latter’s idea for a script based on Lister’s life, things went cold for about a decade because of their other working commitments. Wainwright’s success grew: she subsequently created series including Last Tango in Halifax and Happy Valley, both set in Calderdale. But her appearance on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in 2014 was a reminder that she had not lost interest in Lister. She chose Female Fortune as the book she wanted to take with her as a castaway, which “amazed and delighted” Liddington.

In 2016, Wainwright got back in touch and the pair “worked together on reforming or reshaping the research into…documents that could feed into her script plan”, spending a “very busy and very enjoyable” year on this work, says Liddington. After that, she went back to working on suffrage in preparation for the 2018 centenary of women over 30 (who met a property qualification) winning the right to vote in Britain. That meant that she was not one of the historical consultants on Gentleman Jack and “wasn’t involved in the filming or the later script-editing meetings”.

Liddington describes Wainwright as “a genius” and believes that the combined resources of the BBC and HBO have produced a programme that “really does represent or reflect Anne Lister’s society”. And the programme has achieved “global reach”, she adds. “Both Helena [Whitbread] and I, our books on Anne Lister have reached a readership, an audience. But nothing, nothing like the reach of Sally Wainwright’s Gentleman Jack.

Jill Liddington

Yet the tradition of extramural education that fostered Liddington’s research into the Lister diaries is now only a memory. At one time, she explains, “Manchester had a very big extramural department, Hull did, Sheffield – I would struggle to think of one of the big civic universities, now in the Russell Group, that didn’t have an extramural department”. That extramural tradition, as the University of Bristol’s Tom Sperlinger has noted, “went into a serious decline in the 1980s”, with many such departments closing in the 1990s. The University of Oxford’s department of continuing education is a rare survivor. The Leeds extramural department – where E.P. Thompson was working when he published The Making of the English Working Class in 1963, relying heavily on his local research into the radicalism of the 18th-century West Riding of Yorkshire – became the School of Continuing Education, before closing in 2005.

Liddington highlights the fact that teaching took place off-campus in adult students’ hometowns, offering a university-standard education for those who did not have the chance to enter higher education earlier in life. Her classes on local and regional history included some for trade union members on day release from work.

“It was very exciting seeing these mature students progressing through the system and ending up with a degree – wow, great,” she recalls. One of her fondest memories was bringing boxes of textbooks into the classroom at the start of term: “You’d open up the book box for the adult students in the classroom and their eyes would open wide: there were the treasures.” The problem was not that the Leeds administration “were against our kind of students, or that we [the academics] weren’t research-active, or teaching to the right standard – we were. It just was that we didn’t have the student numbers…that the physics department or medicine or dentistry or history had. When the finance director looked over our figures, that’s what they saw – sad.”

Locally focused in its genesis, Liddington’s work has also made an impact locally, helping to drive a cultural and visitor boom in Halifax through its inspiration for Gentleman Jack.

Susan Press, Calderdale Council’s cabinet member for public services and communities, tells THE that visitor numbers to Shibden Hall have trebled since Gentleman Jack aired, with some visitors travelling from as far afield as the US. Visitors, she said, then go on to other attractions in the area such as Halifax’s Piece Hall, the centre of the town’s former cloth trade that has been described as “a vast balconied courtyard that looks like Venice’s Piazza San Marco transplanted to the West Riding”.

“We are working to harness the long-term impact of Gentleman Jack across Calderdale – especially now a second series has been confirmed – taking tourism and our distinctiveness as a heritage destination to the next level,” says Press.

Halifax hosted an Anne Lister weekend in July, including a talk by Liddington and Whitbread. This was originally to be held in an independent bookshop in the Piece Hall. When tickets sold out, the talk was moved to the town hall. When tickets sold out there too, it was moved again to Halifax Minster, where around 250 tickets also sold out.

“It was the most inspiring occasion I have ever spoken at, with a very enthusiastic and quite international audience there,” says Liddington. It included “a woman from New York standing up at the end and saying ‘What you, Jill Liddington and Helena Whitbread, have done in terms of Anne Lister for the LGBT community is absolutely amazing, thank you very much’.”

Liddington remarks how “absolutely fantastic the impact of Gentleman Jack has been…on Halifax as a northern deindustrialised town without its own university”, making the town’s emerging hopes to be a “cultural hub for visitors” really fly. As a supporter of devolution for the North, she spoke at the 2012 launch of the Hannah Mitchell Foundation (named after the Manchester suffragist), which aims to promote debate about the right kind of regional government for the North. Living in Lancashire and Yorkshire for the past 40 years has shown her “how very metro-centric…[and] over-centralised Britain is”.

If her writing “about northern women and their experiences, whether it’s suffragists in Lancashire or Anne Lister in Yorkshire” has “helped in any way to bring about greater decentralisation or greater power for the North”, Liddington reflects, “I shall feel absolutely delighted”.



Print headline: Bringing lesbian history to life

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