Anne Lister & “Shirley” in business

There is a long tradition of women being successfull in farming, landowning and business. Here I look at Anne Lister (Gentleman Jack) and Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley in that light.

The hype before Gentleman Jack was aired depended on the show being titillating: it was proffered as a guilty pleasure in which the last dregs of our capacity to be shocked were pandered-to whilst cloaked in the fig-leaf of queer-worship. Thus do we get down and dirty with the transgressive. I hope the wider themes of Anne Lister’s life and diaries get a good look in.

It is interesting and even important to anatomise pre-Victorian attitudes to women including lesbians – in business, in Society, in bed, and in the family. I hope someone will stress that in ages before our own, whilst there were more and heavier formal strictures against homosexuality, there were also a wider tolerance and even expectation of serious, passionate, long-lasting platonic same-sex relations.  However, in some ways it seems that before our own time, whilst there was a greater requirement for carnal transgressives to be discrete there was greater privacy for them to be so and quite possibly greater tolerance of them provided they were. Anne Lister’s diaries are presumably very rare and valuable in showing us at least one example of a pre-Victorian lesbian’s relations – carnal and platonic – with women who seem to have varied quite widely in the consistency of their sexual tastes. It is of course very interesting to understand the fluidity or fixity of sexual identity and habits, historically or in our own time – or in the future. So much is now overtly up for grabs which was once kept privy.

These diaries are presumably fascinating in giving us a clue to the public reception of a flamboyant lesbian. So far as I understand so far, she certainly was not barred from Society or from being taken seriously as a businesswoman. These matters are at least as interesting as sexual identity issues.

Very similar reflections are bound to flood in when one reads Charlotte Bronte’s mid-19th Century Shirley. It is set in the early 19th Century, when war with France powerfully distorted normal commercial relations with the Continent. It is a wonderful if at times slightly tedious book.

Though some pages seem to advance things rather little, one should persevere as it fascinates and tantalises. It does, for instance, beg the question whether its two main heroines might have wanted intimacies (with each other, or with other characters), carnal or platonic, that for one reason or another they did not allow themselves. Leave all that aside, and right there on the pages in front of one in clear view there is a lovely account of serious women having frank discussions about their apparent weakness in their relations to men. There are long and sharp passages about how the eponymous Shirley runs the charity she is funding out of her own wealth. In effect, she does it by manipulating the men who must nominally be in charge.  Shirley is a land-owner rather in the manner of Anne Lister and she is confronted with the problem of how soft (considerate, conciliatory) in the face of labour unrest she should enjoin her tough (realistic, pragmatic) businessman tenant to be. Brontë handles these matters with coolness and skill, and with some hints at feminine anger or at least frustration.  She writes as one who has seen all these relations unfold before her.   

If Gentleman Jack is half as interesting as Shirley, whilst being quicker on its feet, then we’ll be very lucky.

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Publication date

19 May 2019