How Anne Walker & Ann Lister's Real Marriage Compares To Gentleman Jack

Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
At the age of 41, Anne Lister, the subject of the new HBO show Gentleman Jack, was finally ready to settle down and get married.
She navigated this major life decision with the same trailblazing mentality that allowed her to climb the Pyrenees, leave England to study anatomy in France, and run her family's 400-acre estate.
Because when it came to getting married, Lister certainly had a trail to blaze. It was 1832 England, and Anne Lister wanted to find a wife. She wouldn't settle for anything less (read: a man, or a woman married to one).
"I thoroughly intend to live with someone I love. I thoroughly intend to spend my evening out with someone who loves me. Someone who's there all of the time, to share everything with," Anne (Suranne Jones) says in the HBO show Gentleman Jack, which is about Lister's life.
Lister pursued a life partner with sharp rationality. Her criteria for a spouse likely resembled the list of characteristics that her landed male contemporaries were seeking: Someone agreeable and with a lot of money.
In Ann Walker, a 29-year-old neighbor living alone at the cavernous Crow Nest estate, Lister found a perfect mate. “Had she been a man, Lister’s liaison with Ann Walker would have been seen as an ideal marriage, uniting properties and policies to form a powerful Tory gentry base at the edge to industrializing Halifax,” Martha Vicinus wrote in Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928.
It was a wise match — but Walker and Lister couldn’t have been more different. Despite being afforded tremendous wealth and privilege, Walker was essentially a shut-in. She was shy, withdrawn, and mentally fragile following the deaths of her brother and parents.
After visiting Crow Nest over Christmas in 1833, Lister wrote of Walker in her diary, "I never saw such a hope¬less person in my life. 'How miserable,' said I to myself, 'Thank God my own mind’s not like hers.’”
By the time she met Walker, the ever-vigorous Lister had lived many lives — and loved many women. Much of Lister’s 27-volume diary was dedicated to writing about her love life and sexual encounters (famously, the “x” stood for orgasm in the diary). Lister’s first love was Eliza Raine, her roommate at boarding school. Then came the older heiress Isabella “Tib” Norcliffe, who never recovered from Lister’s rejection of her as a life partner.
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Through Norcliffe, 23-year-old Lister met the great love of her life: Mariana Belcombe. Lister actually committed herself to Belcombe long before she met Walker, though that marriage ceremony was done in private. But two years into their idyllic relationship, Belcombe suddenly married Charles Lawton, a 56-year-old widower, for economic stability.
Still, the women were determined to keep seeing each other. Belcombe actually wore a ring that Lister had given her at the ceremony, and Lister wore the ring Charles had given Lister. To further entangle the couples, Liser caught the STI that Charles had given Belcombe. In September 1825, Belcombe and Lister had a recommitment ceremony. They exchanged wedding rings and lockets that contained each other’s public hair inside (!).
But Belcombe and Lister couldn’t be together, not really — so Lister continued to see other people. After Belcombe got married, Lister had a relationship with a widow named Maria Barlow. They moved in together. Barlow wanted Lister to dress as a man so they could have a legal wedding, but Lister refused. As the character expresses in the Gentleman Jack, Lister wanted to marry a woman, as a woman.
All of Lister’s affairs ended when Ann Walker moved into Lister’s estate, Shibden Hall, in 1834. Gentleman Jack depicts their time together as a dizzying love fest, but the reality is probably more disappointing — Lister and Walker's dispositions were often at odds.
Still, Lister got what she wanted: A marriage in every sense of the word. Walker and Lister were married in a ceremony at Holy Trinity church in York in 1834. While not officially recognized, the women took their marriage seriously. They made reference to their relationship in public (Lister called Walker "her particular friend").
The women also remade their wills so the surviving spouse would inherit the other's properties. However, the outside world didn't take their wills as seriously as they did. Two years after Lister died while traveling in Russia with Walker in 1840, Walker's brother-in-law took control over both the Lister and Walker properties.
Ann Walker died in 1854 in her home, following a long period of mental illness. Watch Gentleman Jack, and see them at their best. Even if the details are embellished, their status as two women who defied society to get married still stands.
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