When the BBC/HBO series Gentleman Jack first aired on British television in 2019, only a few people had heard of the 19th century Halifax-born diarist Anne Lister. Certainly, no-one could have predicted the seismic effect the TV show would have on many women across the world. But as we sat down to watch with peaked curiosity, it was soon clear that Gentleman Jack would be one of the most liberating shows ever.
The Gentleman Jack Effect
In 2019, Jan was single and living in Staffordshire, England. A retired police officer and animal welfare campaigner, Jan had lived an openly gay life for as long as she can remember.
Jan watched as Gentleman Jack launched to the US audience, gaining rave reviews. The true story revealed prolific diarist Anne Lister and her incredible character – strong-willed, entrepreneurial and intellectual. Importantly, Anne Lister was gay, and the series aired the complexity of living as a (secretly) gay woman in rural Britain in the 1800s. It was a story that certainly appealed to Jan. She said, “I’d never really heard of Anne Lister before I watched Gentleman Jack. But as soon as I did, I knew I wanted to find out more about this amazing woman.”
Anne Lister of Halifax - The real Gentleman Jack
In real life, Anne Lister was a force to be reckoned with. Her industrious nature, evident in both her business and private lives, caught the attention of the conservative middle- and upper-class circles in which she moved. It was the mid 1800s and in the West Yorkshire mill town of Halifax such behaviour was not tolerated. Lister was cruelly labelled ‘Gentleman Jack’. Lister diarised her daily life in over five-million words; her lesbian love affairs were noted in secret code. But it wasn’t until around 50 years after her death that her diaries were decoded, and her secrets revealed.
Thankfully times have changed, and the magnificent storytelling of screenwriter and director Sally Wainwright dramatised Anne Lister’s story for primetime BBC viewing. The show has since been recognised with BAFTA nominations. The casting of Suranne Jones (Anne Lister) and Sophie Rundle (Lister’s wife Ann Walker) proved hugely popular. In particular, Suranne Jones’ portrayal beautifully demonstrated Lister’s strength of character, which resonated with the audience and, in some cases, triggered a series of life-changing events.
In a quiet part of Lincolnshire, dog-trainer Emily was one with whom the Gentleman Jack effect struck a resounding chord. Originally from Hertfordshire, Emily found the TV show incredibly poignant. “I was 45 and I basically came out because of Gentleman Jack,” Emily said.
A Voyage of Discovery to Halifax
Both Jan and Emily began researching more about Anne Lister. Jan began reading Lister’s 200-year-old diaries, much of which had been transcribed by Halifax biographer and author Helena Whitbread. Jan said, “I visited York to see the chapel where Lister and her wife got married. I visited Shibden Hall in Halifax where Anne Lister lived, and I walked the stunning hills and valleys that she would have done.” Consuming as much available information about Anne Lister as possible became a passionate hobby.
Meanwhile, in Lincolnshire, Emily’s online searches of Anne Lister led her to Holdsworth House Hotel in Halifax. In October 2019, Helena Whitbread was to give a talk about Anne Lister and the social history of living a gay life in the 1800s.
“I nearly didn’t go to the event,” said Emily. “I got cold feet that morning. But the weather was bad, and I had nothing else to do so I made the drive.” She continues, “The event was incredible, as was Helena Whitbread. I’ve realised her work and the Gentleman Jack TV programme have been life-changers for me. I have Anne Lister to thank for writing the diaries; through her I realised I can be who I want to be.”
As if coming out wasn’t a big enough experience for Emily in 2019, it was the year she also met her wife. Because also sitting in the audience at Holdsworth House that drizzly October day, was Jan. Fate was certainly in the driving seat for the pair.
Gentleman Jack Wedding
Jan and Emily hit it off immediately and that winter they got engaged.
“When Jan asked me to marry her,” gushed Emily, “I said we’ve got to get married at Holdsworth. That was always a given for both of us.”
Initially, Jan and Emily decided to marry two years to the day they met – 16th October. But there was a wedding already planned at Holdsworth House, so they chose Friday 15th 2021 instead.
“No other venues were even discussed,” Jan said, “We just love Holdsworth House. The staff are amazing – the best. It was important to both of us to get married where we met, in the town where Anne Lister was born and so close to where she lived.”
The wedding was a relaxed affair. It began the night prior, on the Thursday.
Jan said, “Many of us arrived the afternoon and the evening before. We thought it a good idea as we were travelling from all over the south and the midlands. Many of us stayed over and had a lovely meal together, I think it helped everyone to relax and to make the celebrations last longer.”
The couple’s main priority for the wedding was that everyone had fun and enjoyed themselves. Throughout their working lives, both Jan and Emily had become accustomed to dealing with the public and speaking in front of people.
“We’re not the nervous, worrying kind,” said Emily. “We knew we could say our vows and I didn’t want to read them off a card. What was particularly memorable was afterwards, in the gardens whilst guests were having photos, we sat on the bench and said our own promises to each other and gave each other a gift.” She continues, “The moment now seems unintentionally reminiscent of the final scene of Gentleman Jack, where Anne Lister and Ann Walker make their secret wedding vows to each other in church.”
Jan said, “Spending five minutes alone together on the day was so special. It worked well because by the time we walked into the reception, everyone was already seated.”
The wedding reception was enjoyed by 51 guests. It wasn’t long since large gatherings had been allowed again following the Covid pandemic.
Jan said, “The support we had from Holdsworth House was amazing. The day could not have gone better. The team made it so simple. None of our guests could find fault and a lot of have since said it was the best wedding they’ve been to. We wanted a no-stress wedding and that’s exactly what we got.”
Creative Family and Friends
Emily’s young cousin and goddaughter Aimee is a whizz at design, so offered to create bespoke wedding invitations and table decorations. The autumnal theme included pumpkins, acorns, pinecones, berries, and leaves – all used to bring a colourful, seasonal vibe to the room, along with wood-crafted table numbers and place names. The couple were able to access the reception room the day before the wedding, so Aimee could get in and begin setting up in plenty of time. “It was important that our venue only allowed one wedding per day,” said Jan. “As well as feeling like complete royalty, it helped to take the stress away for us”.
The wedding cake was created by a friend. Emily said, “The only worry was getting the cake to Halifax from Hertfordshire in one piece.” She continued, “Not being from Halifax, meant we had no idea about local suppliers. But Holdsworth House provided some great recommendations, and they couldn’t have been better.
Jan said, “We literally met the registrars on the morning and struck up a brilliant relationship – bearing in mind we’d had to arrange our vows over email. A big shout out to Flowers by Jade of Halifax who were fantastic. Everything went swimmingly. It was like someone waived a wand over the hotel.”
With three photographer friends to fulfil the brief of taking natural photos, the couple got some cracking shots, including some of their friend’s pet dogs that played a special part in the wedding day.
Showtime in Suits
Emily decided she didn’t want a traditional wedding dress. “I wanted our attire to be very relaxed and natural,” she said. “We don’t wear skirts, but we didn’t want to look manly.”
Jan bought her navy, patterned suit online and wore it with a mint cravat. Emily chose an ivory sequinned suit with a pink cravat and black waistcoat. A good friend’s son and daughter took part in the ceremony, wearing a blue suit and an ivory dress respectively.
As seen on TV
“Stefan’s Jewellers made our wedding rings,” said Jan. “They actually made a lot of the jewellery for the Gentleman Jack show including the black onyx ring made for Suranne Jones, the heart-shaped tie pin she wears, and the engagement ring that Anne gives to wife Ann at the end of the first series.”
Their wedding is now incredibly memorable as Jan’s mum, Daphne, sadly passed away in February 2022. It was Daphne who walked Jan down the aisle, whilst Emily walked into the ceremony on the arm of her surrogate mum, Maggie.
Emily said, “As the ceremony started, the mobile phone of Jan’s mum’s friend went off. It was hilarious. I said there’s always one! to which the friend replied nobody ever calls me – and it turned out to be a cold caller!”
The ceremony songs chosen were At Last by Celine Dion, So Natural by Lisa Stansfield, and Barry White’s You’re The First, The Last, My Everything. The first dance was to Heather Small’s What Do I Have.
Jan’s best football buddy made a hilarious speech at the reception dinner and Aimee read a speech for Emily. Both Jan and Emily made a speech too, with Jan’s including a moving quote lifted straight from Anne Lister’s diary:
“With all my faults, Heaven grant me still the virtue of sincerity; and though I walk through many a darksome shade of folly and remorse, still let there be one light, the light of truth to guide me right at last.”
Jan said, “That light led Anne Lister to her wife Ann Walker. It’s the same light that led me to Emily. If Anne Lister hadn’t have written her diaries and Gentleman Jack hadn’t appeared on our screens, none of this would have happened.”
In any other Covid-free year Jan and Emily would have honeymooned in Canada, where they vow to visit one day. But two weeks in Scotland proved equally as scenic: one week on the Isle of Bute and another week in a glamping pod close to Loch Ness.
Wedding Planning Advice
Today, the pair live together in Lincolnshire. When asked if they have any advice for couples Jan said, “Start planning early, it’s surprising how fast time goes.”
Emily suggests, “If you’ve got friends that are very creative, then use them – they know you best and they can be a godsend.”
Emily continued, “Having a get-together at the hotel the night before took a lot of stress away: everyone got chance to have a drink and chill out. Having the option to stay over on the night of the wedding too was also a blessing as no one was rushing off.”
Gentleman Jack Series 2
As the second series of Gentleman Jack is set to be shown on our TVs in spring 2022, Jan and Emily will have fond memories of their wedding at Holdsworth House. And it’s not only Jan and Emily whose lives have changed because of the TV show. There are countless stories of women across the world whose lives have been positively affected as they resonate with the show’s themes and storylines.
As a direct result of Gentleman Jack, there are vibrant Anne Lister Birthday Week events held annually in Halifax – organised by US-based superfan Pat Esgate and endorsed by the show’s creator Sally Wainwright.
At Holdsworth House, we’re confident too that other couples will follow in the footsteps of Jan and Emily by confirming their marriage vows. If only Anne Lister had been alive now to witness the impact she has had…
Huge thanks to Jan and Emily for sharing their story and wonderful photos.