The 19th Century Lesbian Made for 21st Century Consumption

Jeanna Kadlec considers Anne Lister, the historical figure at the center of HBO’s Gentleman Jack, and the influence of other queer women who preceded her.

Jeanna Kadlec | Longreads | June 2019 | 12 minutes (3,114 words)

When we call Anne Lister, the 19th century British diarist and adventurer reimagined in HBO’s hit series Gentleman Jack, the “first modern lesbian,” what do we mean, precisely? Critics don’t seem to know. The catchy tagline coined by Lister’s devotees and perpetuated by the show’s marketing is good branding, but makes for a slightly confusing moniker: what is it, exactly, that makes Anne Lister a “modern” lesbian, let alone the first?

The answer goes beyond a casual Wikipedia-esque list of Lister’s propensities and accomplishments that most coverage of the show has thus far relied on. To understand what makes Anne Lister unique, you have to understand how lesbianism and identity were understood in the 1830s — and it’s far too simplistic to say that women with women was simply “unimaginable” for the time, that Lister was completely solitary in her pursuit of as public a commitment as would have been socially acceptable.

Lesbian content was not unfamiliar to 17th, 18th, and 19th century audiences. From lesbian eroticism in pornographic texts such as the psuedonymous Abbé du Prat’s The Venus in the Cloister: or, the Nun in Her Smock, published in 1683, to the trope of a “Female Husband” (which had historical grounding in famous figures like Mary Hamilton) to the romantic friendship of Ladies of Llangollen, who were contemporaries of Lister’s, the idea of women loving (and fucking) women was hardly new, if deeply socially unacceptable. Among women of the upper class with means, Lister was hardly alone in forging her own kind of life. The “first”? No.

Lister was ahead of her time, but not in the obvious way: not because of her desire, or even her willingness to throw off norms. Rather, her desire to live what we would identify as an “out” life (or, as “out” a life as possible) was informed by a distinctly Enlightenment-informed conception of her individuality and her psychosexual identity that would have been more at home in 2019 than 1839. In Lister’s time, lesbian wasn’t the distinct identity category it would later become. Lister’s prescient insistence on a cohesion between her public and private personas — an insistence on her sexuality as a vital component of her identity — was remarkable. Thanks to her diaries, we also have unprecedented access to how she herself thought of her identity and sexuality, as well as an explicit record of sexual activity. Ultimately, this means that Lister is a historical figure made for 21st century consumption, onto whose life we can easily project (if anachronistically) ideas like that of the closet and the difficulty of living an “out” life in Regency England.

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The first published use of the word lesbian to connote what the Oxford English Dictionary calls “A woman who engages in sexual activity with other women; a woman who is sexually or romantically attracted (esp. wholly or largely) to other women; or, a homosexual woman” dates to 1732, in Oxford don William King’s vicious satire The Toast, which fictionalizes the Duchess of Newburgh (Lady Frances Brudenell) as a witch and lesbian named ‘Myra.’ In this, he beats 20th and 21st American conservatives like Pat Robertson to the punch of collapsing witches and lesbians together. He writes, “This little Woman gave Myra more Pleasure than all the rest of her Lovers and Mistresses. She was therefore dignified with the Title of Chief of the Tribades or Lesbians.” (Not a bad title, I think.) Though intended as revenge for Newburgh’s victory over him in court, it also is our first recorded instance in the English language of the word lesbian in its modern sense, of a woman whose sole sexual interest is other women.

Lister’s prescient insistence on a cohesion between her public and private personas — an insistence on her sexuality as a vital component of her identity — was remarkable.

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, lesbian was one word among many: tribade, sodomitesse, sapphist, amazon, tommy, anandryne. As Susan Lanser notes in The Sexuality of History, there were numerous labels applied to homoerotic behaviors and the women who practiced them, although these would not have categories of identification as we think of them today. “Lesbian” was not a word you’d have put on your Tinder or Twitter bio if either platform had existed; it was, essentially, slander.

Lister had contemporaries who lived quite openly, though these couples were certainly uncommon. At the time Gentleman Jack, the series, takes place in 1832, a real life couple, Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake, had just celebrated their 29th anniversary. Bryant and Drake lived an openly married life together in Massachusetts that would be quite publicly recorded during their lifetime by Bryant’s nephew, who wrote about his aunts’ 40th anniversary in the New-York Evening Post, of all places. While sexual discretion was a part of their public life, as it was Lister’s and that of other queer women of the time, their relationship was well known to their Weybridge community. Bryant called Drake her “help-meet,” an early American synonym for wife taken from the Book of Genesis. Rachel Hope Cleves, who wrote Charity & Sylvia: A Same Sex Marriage in Early America, says, “Charity’s sister-in-law, and good friend, Sally Snell Bryant, wrote to the women in 1843, ‘I consider you both one as man and wife are one.’” Cleves also notes that their community was delicate with the relationship, as when Drake’s brother “likened the women’s relationship to a marriage [in his memoir],” explaining that his sister had never married but, rather, had spent her life “in company with Miss Charity Bryant.” Bryant and Drake, active in their community and well beloved, were ultimately buried together, a right typically reserved for married couples.

More common was for Regency women to live under the guise of so-called “romantic friendship,” a same-sex category for both men and women that afforded an intense public physical and emotional intimacy that simultaneously shielded any sexual intimacy that took place. While scholars often uses the term “romantic friendship” to indicate emotionally intense but nonsexual relationships, the term is still important to consider for the fact that the category was embraced by the women to whom it afforded a complete freedom from compulsory heterosexuality and marriage. As Valerie Traub has discussed in “The (In)Significance of Lesbian Desire,” one of the most prominent characteristics of female sexual representation is the persistent questioning of whether something sexual is there at all.

The two women most famous for their romantic friendship in the 18th century were the Ladies of Llangollen, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby. Slightly older contemporaries of Lister’s who were downright obsessed with each other, their families tried to keep them apart in their youth and failed spectacularly, with the women ultimately moving from their native Ireland to the Vale of Llangollen in Wales, where they lived together for 50 years. Again, social rank is relevant: Butler was from a noble family, and they had education, money (though they were often in debt), and the ability to live independently and receive visitors from the highest echelons of society. Like Lister, they wore top hats; visitors like Anna Seward and William Wordsworth both wrote and dedicated poetry to them. They even received a pension from the Queen for the example they set with their relationship.

Because they were so famous, many of the Ladies’ letters have survived. There are a number in the Pforzheimer Collection at The New York Public Library. While many of the NYPL’s letters are somewhat typical correspondence, one — to conservative education reformer Hannah More (the woman to whom we can credit modern-day Sunday Schools) — speaks to the Ladies’ mutual religious devotion and conservatism, as well as to their breadth of social circle: they entertained people as varied as More, Lady Caroline Lamb (the married lover of Lord Byron), and even Anne Lister, who was purportedly inspired to go home and get married after visiting with them. Eleanor and Sarah often signed their letters on behalf of the other (as one from Sarah: “kindest regards from myself and Lady Eleanor”), signifying their mutual duality as a paired couple, even if they were not interpreted as a romantic one, in the modern day sense of the word.


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In her letters — and as is represented in Gentleman Jack — Anne Lister entreats Ann Walker to a romantic partnership that would appear completely respectable to polite society. Privately, they would marry; publicly, they would live together as two wealthy women in respectable, partnered friendship — essentially, exactly as the Ladies of Llangollen. “Might we not live together, set up home together, as companions?” Lister asks Walker in episode three.

“Like a marriage?” Walker asks.

“Quite as good, or better,” Lister responds.

Sexual discretion within romantic friendship — even if that “friendship”  is essentially an open secret, as with Charity and Sylvia, or Anne Lister and Ann Walker — was essential for complying with the sexual mores of the time. Explicit sexual activity between women, while not criminalized as it was with men, was still grounds for public shaming and ostracization; pornographic lesbian materials were disseminated to discredit Marie Antoinette during the French Revolution, and independently minded, unmarried women in Romantic and Victorian-era England who lived alone, and not with a companion under the umbrella of “romantic friendship,” were often followed by suspicion.

Part of the fascination with Lister is that she viewed herself and her sexuality in a way rather consistent with our contemporary views of sexual identity. It also cannot be overstated that Lister kept a sexually explicit diary — a rarity for any historical queer, but especially for a woman. There has been speculation for years, for example, about whether the Ladies of Llangollen had a sexual relationship — some argue they were too conservative and religious to have had sex, which seems an odd argument, to say the least (Lister was religious, too); others point to a lack of explicit eroticism in their letters, and still others point out the rather obvious fact that the two women shared a bed for decades, so: draw your own conclusions. In comparison, Lister’s blatant, so explicit it is impossible to misinterpret diaries recording how often she made her various lovers orgasm seems a blessed relief for historians who are so often left having to parse the nuances of whether people even considered themselves queer, let alone the details of how they actually lived their lives. Lister, like Walt Whitman after her, was so obsessed with recording herself that it she makes it easy for us.  

Whereas Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake and the Ladies of Llangollen provide a more direct comparison to Lister, there are other prominent examples of what we would call queer relationships between women and queers of the time. In the Pforzheimer Collection at the NYPL, the Ladies of Llangollen’s letters are marked under the following designation: Women in Trouble/Lesbians, Female Husbands, and Other Passing Women. “Female husband,” looking through a contemporary lens, is a wildly loaded term, bringing to mind all manner of transphobic arguments about who does and doesn’t count, arguments brought by sects of society as varied as the Religious Right and Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist (TERF) lesbians.

Shifting conceptions of identity and a significant lack of historical documentation (in the Lister sense, of having sheaves of diaries) can make it difficult to understand precisely where many of the Assigned Female at Birth (AFAB) people who took on this “female husband” identity were coming from. A problematic aspect of queer historiography, particularly in regards to gender identity, is that people we would today identify as transgender, or perhaps non-binary or genderfluid, have certainly always been here. The language and constructions of self-identification have not always been the same; how did the person see themselves and their desires, is a constant question when considering historical queers. Language is constantly shifting, creating a process of untangling for historians that can feel more morass than mosaic. However: those who renamed themselves Charles or Walter, worked professionally (and, obviously, in the closet) in careers that were exclusively available to men (such as medicine), and took wives, certainly seem, by modern rubrics, to have lived lives which are identifiable, as Victorianist Grace Lavery writes, as “a kind of trans experience.”

What is unique about the “female husband” is that, in the most famous historical cases (which is to say, ones where the individual was publicly outed and typically prosecuted for fraud), the women they had married claimed absolutely no knowledge of her spouse’s sex. Charles Hamilton, who was christened (and later written about as) Mary Hamilton, worked as a doctor and took a wife. Hamilton is perhaps the most famous 18th century case, in part because Henry Fielding published a highly sensationalized (and cruel) 23-page fictionalized “biographical” account, The Female Husband, in which he presents Hamilton as “unnatural” and “monstrous.” Fielding claimed the novella to have been based on interviews with Hamilton, a claim historians have thoroughly challenged. What is certain is that in 1746, Hamilton’s wife of two months, Mary Price, reported Hamilton to the authorities, claiming total ignorance of her spouse’s sex prior to marriage. Ultimately, Hamilton was given a six-month prison sentence and publicly whipped.

A female husband figure who was more contemporary to Lister was Walter Sholto Douglas, who also wrote as Charles Lyndsay and has been written about in scholarship under their christened name, Mary Diana Dods. Douglas’ story, best documented in Betty T. Bennett’s groundbreaking Mary Diana Dods: A Gentleman and a Scholar (1991), highlights the nuances of a life — and identity — that begs to be adapted for the screen, but, due to a lack of clarity around their precise consideration of their own gender and sexuality, would be a fraught enterprise for adaptation. Douglas wrote professionally (and successfully) under the name Charles Lyndsay for years, and fully taking on the Douglas name when they lived as a diplomat and writer abroad. Douglas fled England, to the best of our knowledge not due to anxieties over the expression of gender or sexuality but rather because they were significantly in debt. As anyone who’s read a Dickens novel knows, people in nineteenth century England were regularly imprisoned for debt. But Douglas also found another reason to flee: to wed a friend, Isabella Robinson (also a friend of Mary Shelley’s), at least in part as a cover for Robinson’s illegitimate pregnancy. Letters between Douglas and Mary Shelley indicate that Shelley assisted in the couple’s escape from England, a progressive ally who was fully aware of Douglas’ history. Douglas and Robinson lived together with their daughter, who considered Douglas to be her father and who she later listed as such on her marriage license, for the duration of their lives.

The “female husband” was both a fictional trope and a lived experience for a number of couples. To a less extent, Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake themselves adopted roles that we might more consider to be an extremely traditional forerunner to butch/femme. Anne Lister, who in her diaries represents herself as a woman who wanted a wife, went by “Freddie” with many of her lovers, a nuance of self-expression that is represented in the pilot of Gentleman Jack and continues throughout the first season, with her ex-lover Mariana continually addressing her as “Dearest Fred” in letters. Relationships are ever changing, and language is slippery, so often less precise than we would like; “language forces us to make such choices when we refer to things, alas,” Lavery writes, when discussing the complex terrain of navigating transness, queerness, masculinity, femininity, and the whole scope of it all among historical figures. What is certain is that we were here.

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The point is that queers took lovers, took wives, and lived as openly (or privately) as they could, assuming codes and ways of being that felt most real, whether it was “romantic friendship,” an identity as a “female husband,” or something else altogether. It is noteworthy that, for the most part, the cases we know of are either those tried under the law (like Hamilton), or women who occupied a sphere of society which guaranteed a certain amount of historical documentation and legacy, as with Lister and the Ladies of Llangollen. But there is nuance: there is an understanding of the codes like romantic friendship which allowed people like Bryant and Drake to thrive; there is also a need for understanding that how we conceive of identity would have been completely foreign to virtually all of the individuals being discussed in this article.

Part of the fascination with Lister is that she viewed herself and her sexuality in a way rather consistent with our contemporary views of sexual identity.

In this, Lister’s conception of herself, and the sheer amount of information we have to work with, easily lends itself to a modern audience of an HBO series. Because of Lister’s insistence on a permanent, sexual partnership — indeed, on a marriage, even a private one — an adaptation of her life does not necessarily require an audience to understand the veil of romantic friendship.  

It was not easy to be queer, in any sense, then. But even for the strides that the 2010s have made in representation, and particularly trans representation, on television — such as with FX’s nearly all-POC, all-trans cast on Pose, and Netflix’s regrettably now-canceled One Day at a Time, which featured Sid, a non-binary partner for the newly out Elena — historical dramas featuring queer characters still tend toward the direction of early 2000s representation for queer women, which is to say: femme on femme. Recent critical darlings like The Favourite and Colette feature actresses like Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone and Keira Knightley; even cult favorite Killing Eve, run me over with a car as it is, relies heavily on sexual tension between two cis femmes.

So Gentleman Jack is doing quite a bit in terms of historical representation for butches, for masculine-presenting and androgynous folks, in that its lead, and driving force, is a butch woman who wears a tophat, is a top in the bedroom, goes by Fred with many of her lovers, and sees no reason why she shouldn’t do literally everything that men do, since she can do it better.

But Gentleman Jack also brings to life a story about someone who, due to the voracity of her self-documentation, can be represented with a degree of accuracy and responsibility that is extremely unusual for a historical queer, someone whose private and public life historians and the show’s creators are quite certain of and agreed upon. Anne Lister was absolutely remarkable, a force of nature — but it is vital that we remember she was not alone, nor singular, nor “the first” in any sense of the word. And this is important: “The first modern lesbian” is good branding for HBO, but to repeat it without consideration for Lister’s own queer foreparents and contemporaries is to forget of our community’s extraordinary history — and capacity for survival.

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Jeanna Kadlec is a freelance writer living in New York City. Her work has appeared in O the Oprah Magazine, Nylon, Allure, Literary Hub, Electric Literature, and more.

Editor: Sari Botton