The figure cut a dashing sight.
Dressed in black evening wear, it charged down the hill, ran to the oncoming coach and launched itself through the window, then grabbed the lovely young traveller within.
Black suit wrestled the passenger to the floor of the lumbering vehicle and proceeded to have robust but not harmful sex with the girl.
Satisfied, the assailant looked up to see the horrified look on the faces of two people also riding in the coach. They were appalled.
A better example of the adage ‘Wham bam, thank you ma’am ‘.
But the black suited figure didn’t care. It was a welcome home to the lovely lady in the coach from her passionate lover. The incident reflected the spirited, sometimes amusing, even socially acceptable daring do in some quarters of 18th century society. Passions readily got out of hand and lovers were rated by their audacity. A Jack the Lad exuberance held sway. Except the somber garbed Romeo in this case was indeed a Jack. Gentleman Jack, a woman.
Better known as Anne Lister, the lothario is considered to be the icon that started some sort of acceptance of lesbian liaisons in the mid 1800s. Until then society pretended lesbian relationships were a myth. Lister created a growing awareness in society that lesbians were not an odd species, but were equally capable of entering a man’s world and succeeding in it.
Anne led a colourful life. She started her lesbian affairs in school and was expelled for it.
She had several liaisons after that, eventually having a long relationship with a Lady Isabel Lawton, who was married but whose husband came to terms with his wife’s true love and stayed with her for the sake of respectability.
Anne was a successful business woman, owning mines, properties and stone quarries. Often she would defy convention, turning up at ‘the mill’ to solve problems as if she was a man. Indeed she dressed much like a man and the black clothes she always wore was her way of cocking a snook at the establishment..
She was also a compulsive diarist and author, writing an estimated 4 million words in her lifetime.
But her diaries included detailed explanations of her lesbian love making and much of it was written in code which wasn’t cracked until 1934, then hidden again until 1980. But the diaries , give a terrific insight into the lesbian lifestyle of the 18th and 19th centuries and the motivations for Lister’s activities. She abandoned her romantic lover for a wealthy heiress named Ann Walker in 1832, managed to con the church into a form of same sex marriage and set up home with her. But Jack married Ann for her money, not love and from the diaries not much lust either.
The couple travelled widely and Lister died in 1840 in Georgia from fever aged 49.
Walker tragically declared insane by her family, perhaps as a punishment died 14 years later at 51.
Much has been written and dramatised about Gentleman Jack recently but a film about another famous lesbian affair is released in July.
Vera and Virginia is the true story of Rodmell’s Virginia Woolf’s love for one Victoria (Veta) Sackville-West..
The two met at Charleston Farmhouse in Firle, where Virginia’s sister Vanessa Bell famously held her reportedly hedonistic parties. Both were noted writers, but while Virgina followed society’s sub culture of marriage, Veta strutted her stuff and chased every lady who took her fancy with a passion. She was to all intents and purposes a mid 20th century Gentleman Jack.
And indeed she was a gentleman or at least a gentle woman. A daughter of the Earl of Dorset, some say illegitimate, she grew up at Knole Castle in Kent. Her line was blue blooded. The Sackvilles were favourites of Queen Elizabeth I and the family lived in the East Sussex building, Michelham Priory for almost 350 uninterrupted years. Michelham is the place where a Sackville Ghost pinches visitors’ bums, including mine. Perhaps rebellion ran in Veta’s veins from the Sackville side of the family, except she preferred pinching the derrières of ladies rather than men.
Although lesbianism was never illegal in many countries, it did offend Western morality. Thomas Jefferson, one of Tom Paine’s supporters, introduced legislation in America to outlaw it, with severe penalties including death.
It was never enacted but it did show the huge suspicion male dominated societies had from Ancient Greek’s Sappho to mid modern Elizabethan England where UK legislation legalising homosexuality wasn’t passed until 1967.
Homophobia of course is still embedded culturally across many parts of the western world. There’s great satisfaction then for Lewesian’s that the town was rated in the top three UK communities where homophobia is almost
The history of lesbianism stretches more than 2000 years. Notable lesbians such as Swedish Queen Christina in the 17th century. Marie Antoinette in the 18th, Florence Nightingale in the 19th century and Eleanor Roosevelt in the 20th all worked toward acceptance of their status.The development of a lesbian culture among poorer people, less able to make statements that would help, is less clear. Certainly communal environments such as the army helped cloak them from a hostile society while 19th and 20th century French lesbians gathered in clubs in Paris, but who were mainly dancers and courtesans. So how poor people fared as lesbians over the centuries is largely unknown.
If you want to call Gentleman Jack Lister and Vita Sackville West pioneers for the courage they showed in being open in their sexuality, then the term is in my view appropriate. It probably helped that they were forceful and colourful characters who challenged a male dominated society to accept them as they were. Nonetheless, public aprobium was just as powerful a deterrent in the 19th and 20th centuries as death and imprisonment in the years before that.
But I can’t help but laugh as I imagine the scene where Gentleman, (Anne Lister) Jack, launched herself through the window of a carriage, then realized her passion for Isabel had been a floor show for two disapproving spectators. I did try it once in lust for a girl of my dreams. Disaster. I missed the damn window.
The figure cut a dashing sight.