Saturday, 15 February 2014

Jack The Lass

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The Song of a Yorkshire Jack the Lass
by Beth Brook

O’Hooley and Tidow are an English folk duo from Yorkshire and are also civil partners. Heidi Tidow and Belinda O’Hooley met in Huddersfield in 2009. The duo now has two albums out, Silent June and The Fragile, and are due to release their third this month. I can highly recommend their music, which is equally innovative and traditional. As the repertoire of
any good artist should, some of their songs make you laugh and some of them make you cry.

One of O’Hooley and Tidow’s songs, Gentleman Jack, relates to a piece of Yorkshire LGBT history which has featured in this magazine before (1). It is inspired, says Heidi Tidow in the album sleeve, by the tale of Anne Lister (1791-1840), entrepreneur, landowner, rural gentlewoman and lothario, known to disapproving Halifax residents as ‘Gentlemen Jack’. From Shibden Hall, West Yorkshire, Lister kept 4 million words’ worth of diaries written in code which were later discovered and deciphered (by Helena Whitbread) to reveal more than her business activities...

About a sixth of Anne Lister’s diaries are written in code and, when deciphered, detail her lesbian relationships and sexual conquests with women. Rictor Norton has called her ‘the first modern lesbian’ for her clear selfknowledge and openly lesbian lifestyle. She dressed entirely in black and took part in many activities that were not perceived as the norm for gentlewomen, such as opening and owning a colliery.

Called ‘Fred’ by her lover and ‘Gentleman Jack’ by Halifax residents, Lister suffered harassment for her sexuality. As O’Hooley and Tidow’s song lyrics reveal, ‘Handsome Anne’ seduced the fairer sex and was ‘sharp of mind’ but was persecuted for this. As the chorus goes:
Gentlemen Jack, oh Gentleman Jack
Watch your back, you’re under attack
Their husbands are coming, you’d better start running
For nobody likes a Jack-the-Lass

Anne Lister’s diaries have now been published (I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister 1791-1840, ed. Helena Whitbread) and as a result we know much more know about women’s and LGBT history at this time. The diaries give valuable insights into lesbian history, an area of interest where written evidence is relatively rare. More recently, a British television biographical drama was made featuring Maxine Peake as Anne Lister. The film The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister was shown at the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival in March 2010, and broadcast in the United Kingdom by the BBC in May, drawing nearly 2 million viewers.

From the name-calling and some of the encounters she describes in her diary, there appeared to be a tone of infamy imposed on Lister as well as prejudice in how she was received among some of the townspeople of her time. This happily can be juxtaposed with her fame and popularity now and the extent to which she has been celebrated.

O’Hooley and Tidow, The Fragile'Hooley_%26_Tidow

1. Past2Present 2010, Knowing Your Own Heart, p.9

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  1. Adore the song and the new HBO Miniseries about Our Gentleman Jack.

  2. So it's OK to go after a married woman if you're a lesbian?

  3. The women were married AFTER their relationship with Anne Lister had ended.

    1. She would not have relationship with them after their marriage...

  4. A lot of what i will call 'masculine' lesbians find the thrill of 'turning' a married or attached woman irresistible. I have seen this happen soo many times it obviously is a generic trait within tbis demographic which spans centuries. But, subjectivity aside and in response to your question, no it is never ever right to woo someobe who is not free to be wooed. I guess we have to view Miss Listers behaviour in context. In her day, women who were gay had to hide behind the veil of marriage in order to protect and preserve their respectability. Women had fewer choices in the 18th, 19th and 30th centuries, few worked outside of the home and in a society which had clear gender role demarcation it would have been hard to survive without the institution of marriage. Having researched Miss Lister and her life i do not believe she was deliberately pursuing married women, rather,I believe the women she loved rejected her in favour of marriage purely because of a need for societal compliance and acceptance as well as a need to be financially provided for. The desire to have children wouod also have propelled many gay women to marry also. Thankfully women are no longer chained to the ankles of domesticity, marriage and motherhood and can explore and embrace their sexuality and life choices much more liberally.