Book Review: Gentleman Jack – The Real Anne Lister

THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS

Title: Gentleman Jack: The Real Anne Lister

Author: Anne Choma with a Forward by Sally Wainwright

Publisher: BBC Books – Edbury Publishing – Penguin Random House

Publication Date: 2019

Pages: 327

I paid: £6.29 (RRP: £8.99)

Purchased from: Amazon

My Rating: 5 stars


I’ve known about Anne Lister and her diaries for around fifteen years and have always found them fascinating, so I jump on any new Anne Lister related material. This book was designed to complement the BBC Drama aired also on the American HBO Network. It does its job very well. 

The book follows the incidents in the series and draws deeper conclusions regarding the inner thoughts of Anne Lister and Ann Walker. It also gives us a better understanding of the dynamic of the Lister household and Anne’s experiences. To do this, it quotes extensively from Anne’s diaries and correspondence. Some of the issues are not as dramatic as they appear on TV, such as her fight with the thug which in reality was a man with a stick trying to grope her, she pushed him off, he verbally threatened her, she shouted at him, and they parted ways. Other instances are more dramatic. For instance, Anne’s sister is generally portrayed as on the outside looking in or simply having to put up with Anne’s behaviour. The diaries tell us they had screaming arguments for hours that ended in tears often times. Or the fact that Anne did not simply ‘study under’ the French anatomist Couvier, she actively dissected arms, a head, foetuses, ordered her own instruments from a Sheffield cutlers, and had body parts delivered to her room in France where she kept a full-size skeleton. She also observed autopsies of her own tenants and wrote detailed medical notes about them.

We are treated to a deeper look at Anne’s understanding of her sexuality and how she came to terms with it. The dynamic within her female relationships is also more fully explained through quotes from the diaries. We really do get the sense that Anne is a woman who simply wants to find the right person for her, one who will not run off and marry a man as soon as the opportunity presents itself. Anne is in this for the long haul because that is who she is, and she wants someone just as committed as she is. However, this is far more difficult in her time period where women were so dependent on men for their security. Anne needed someone like Ann Walker, who was financially independent. If only she had the emotional stability to go with it. 

There are a few interesting snippets in the book that suggest Ann Walker did have a spark after all. For instance, in several instances where Anne and Ann are kissing on the sofa, Anne also happens to have her hand up Ann’s skirts touching between her legs. Or the time when Ann gave Anne a lock of her pubic hair, handing the scissors to Anne to snip it off herself.

We learn much more detail of Anne’s travels on the continent, with detailed descriptions of landscapes, meetings with scientists, people of note, and visits to museums. 

We also come to understand just how unique Anne Lister was. She had to struggle uphill for everything she wanted to achieve. It must have been incredibly frustrating and anger inducing. Yet it is also heartwarming to see her make her way as successfully as she did. Her nonconformist, rebellious, and go get it attitude, coupled with her polymath mind, make her stand out as a truly remarkable woman of her time, especially in a small community. 

If you enjoyed the TV show, you will find this book a wonderful companion to it, bringing the people truly to life and reminding us they were real, with the full gamut of emotions, problems, and desires. It made me want to step through the pages of time, travel the thirty-seven miles from my home to Shibden Hall, and make a friend of Anne Lister. Hell, if she’d asked me to move into Shibden, I’d have said yes, immediately.


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