Bingo Review 5 (True Story):
I was first very excited when I saw the tv ads for the new show Gentleman Jack, and then mildly irritated when I realized it was on HBO, which I do not have. I was then happy when I was browsing a bookstore for some travel reading and saw this paperback: Gentleman Jack: The Real Anne Lister. Another good non-fiction read; this has really been a good year for that (at least for me).
This book is based on Anne’s diaries, and apparently she was a very diligent diarist. The interesting thing here is that she wrote parts of her journal in code; mostly the bits about exploring her lesbian sexuality or the other really personal things she didn’t want anyone else seeing. Her euphemisms for certain things were also kind of interesting, not just for the language but also for giving some insight into her personality and character. Another interesting thing I learned was that while it was specifically illegal for men to act homosexual (I had known this), it was not technically illegal for women at the time (early-mid 1800s). The book covers about the last decade and a half of Anne’s life, during which she tries to find herself a spouse and travels around Europe. Eventually she does find someone, and they solemnize and record their marriage, the first recorded union between two women.
The focus on Anne’s personal life was interesting, but some things got ignored that would have made a fuller picture of who she really was. Anne’s family is mentioned but we don’t get much about their personalities or lives; I get that this may be partially due to the main source (Anne’s personal diaries) but surely she must have had more on her perspective about the people she was related to given how particular she seems to have been about details. I also wish there was more about her business life. Besides being a lesbian, Anne was also unusual in being a land-owner and as such she was in charge of an estate and its natural resources (coal in this case). There are a few bits and pieces of her thoughts, but the introduction mentions that she was really old-fashioned and by today’s standards harsh and politically incorrect on her views of workers and employees. More on this in the main narrative would have made her even more interesting, although possibly less sympathetic.
There are a lot of other people mentioned with whom Anne interacts, and at least 2 of them are named Anne or Ann. This can occasionally cause some confusion as to who is who, or who is meant. As this is history and non-fiction, it’s not anyone’s fault, but it still took some concentration when multiple Ann(e)s were together or involved the same thing.
In addition to the focus on an intelligent lesbian person, there is also some perspective on the Victorian understanding of mental illness (mostly in the figure of Ann, one of Anne’s potential mates). A little background on that would have been nice, especially since Anne seems to have been pretty sympathetic in her understanding of what was going on with Ann and how important they were to each other.
Overall, a really interesting view on some parts of what it was like as a female in 19th century England. Especially if you don’t have HBO, this is a good book to get if you’re interested in any of the subjects mentioned above.