Q&A with Angela Steidele, author of Gentleman Jack

19 February 2019

Anne Lister was a Yorkshire heiress, an intrepid world traveller and a proud lesbian during a time when it was difficult simply to be female. She chose to remain unmarried, dressed all in black and spoke openly of her lack of interest in men. As daring as Don Juan and as passionate as Heathcliff, Anne would not be constrained by the mores of Regency society.

Anne’s diaries lay hidden for many years, before scholars were brave enough to crack their code. Her erotic confessions and lively letters tell the story of an extraordinary woman. In this groundbreaking new book, celebrated author Angela Steidele gives a fresh perspective on the life of a cult historical figure. She tells us more about what inspired her to write Lister’s biography.

Angela Steidele

You’ve written several books about LGBTQ+ lives in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but what drew you to tell Anne Lister’s story?

Anne’s explicit language of sex. She seduced me to write her biography by literally duplicating her life and loves in her diary.

Readers are surprised by how bold Anne was to live her life the way she did at that time. Did you encounter other LGBT+ people in your research who were just as brave, or was Anne a real one-off?

Anne’s contemporaries Adele Schopenhauer (Arthur’s sister) and Sibylle Mertens lived in Bonn and Rome just as openly as Anne Lister and Ann Walker did in Halifax. Catharina Margaretha Linck (1686–1721) wore men’s clothing, worked as a prophet, a soldier and a craftsman and had many affairs with other women, using a leather dildo. She married the same woman twice, first protestant, then catholic. When they arranged to marry for a third time (again protestant), Linck was betrayed by her mother-in-law. She was arrested and beheaded for committing the crime of sodomy. Unfortunately my biographies on all these women are not yet translated into English.

If Anne were still alive, what one question would you want to ask her?

Would you please give me lessons in Greek?

Do you think Anne would have been flattered with being the first recipient of a rainbow edged blue plaque in the UK?

Publicly she would give no comment. In her diaries she would detest it – and feel some pride at the same time.

Are you working on your next project? Can you tell us a little about it?

After Gentleman Jack I published a ‘making-of’, called (in German) Travelling in Time. Four women, two centuries, one way. It covers Anne Lister’s and Ann Walker’s daring journey to Russia and the Caucasus in more detail, mirrored by the adventures I had, together with my wife, when travelling in their footsteps. Currently I am writing a Poetics of Biography. All three books together will form a trilogy on biographical writing (Biography – Reflection – Theory).

What does LGBTQ+ History Month mean to you? Do you do anything to celebrate?

I devote not only a month, but half of my life to LGBTQ+ history. This year I will come to London to present Gentleman Jack at the British Library (Feb 21) and at Gay’s the Word (March 1).