Thursday, 16 March 2023

Gentleman Jack


Second of three biographies I've read recently.

Slight spoiler at the end of this one, if you don't already know about her life.

I fully wanted to adore Anne Lister's biography. To leave behind a room full of encoded diaries outlining the steamiest of sapphic sexual liaisons, and to be so thoroughly, completely herself... plus it's narrated by Heather Peace, known for so many wonderful things, but especially Lip Service. I was fully invested in her story, but...

She had a lot of spunk, a huge amount of beautiful arrogance and fire, but she also seemed to channel the worst misogynistic tendencies of her age. What a dualism. An icon of sapphic history, with the same desire to string the girls along, break hearts, and marry primarily for money as a total cad. And a staunch Tory to boot. 

I know, she was a product of her time and station, but that didn't make it any more palatable. 

It's a very thorough biography, but I began to flag a bit in the midsection. It became an ongoing list of how many kisses (orgasms) she'd given to each woman, how good they were, and how often. Salacious at first, but about as interesting as a shopping list by the end. I would have liked to learn a bit more about the world she inhabited, the politics and prejudices of the time. There was a bit of that, but more might have helped to flesh out the story and place Anne within a wider context. Overall though, a very thorough and informative story.

She was certainly a traveller, and on one point you really felt for her. She was officially the first person to complete the ascent of Vignemale, the highest peak in the French Pyrenees. She was up against a rival, the Prince de la Moscowa. She beat him to the top by four days, but, with a little bit of bribery and testosterone, the prince was reported in the world press as having been the first to the summit! This was only corrected in 1968. 

...even today the route that Anne took to the peak of the Vignemale on Tuesday 7th August 1838, is called Prince de la Moscowa.

Thankfully, the Wiki page for the Vignemale clearly sets the record straight, recording Anne Lister as the first person to reach the summit and making no mention at all of Prince de la Moscowa. May he slip into historical obscurity for such a dirty stunt. 

There were some other interesting moments, or synchronicities, I spotted. The book mentioned Nizhny Novgorod, and a visit to the hareems. It was fascinating that she had visited that place, as it was mentioned in the first chapter of Those Rosy Hours at Mazandaran. Whereas I had to imagine the hareems, she actually saw one, referring to the inhabitants as 'human animals':

...except in [an] asylum for insanes, I have never seen any sight so melancholy and so  humiliating as this hareem. They are not admitted, or capable of being admitted, into society. How terrible the degradation of one half mankind.

There was also fleeting mention of Prince Pückler, of Pückler Park fame, now on the border of Poland and Germany. I visited the place years ago whilst on a writing retreat. 

She really came into her own in later life, and I suppose I sympathise a little. It can't have been easy in a world where who you married dictated your social status and future prospects. Channelling what, for the time, and even today, were considered masculine traits, it's only natural that her mind would be occupied with the same considerations Mr Darcy went through when considering Elizabeth Bennet. But I liked Darcy a lot more, because he put that consideration aside in the end, whereas Anne appears to have been consumed by it. No matter how much she loved someone in the moment, she was willing to discard them if they didn't earn enough. Maybe that was just an excuse, though. She seemed extremely restless. Seeking the ideal soulmate and perfect companion, so idealised that no one ever quite managed to live up to it. She wanted the money to continue travelling, and she milked her partners for whatever they would give, but perhaps their lack of status was just a convenient excuse she allowed herself to keep looking for 'the one.'

It's a human condition that many would relate to, but it was a little irksome at times, and my interest in her life dwindled a little for that attitude. She wasn't particularly pleasant, though nothing ever said she had to be, and perhaps we don't get all the story from her writings. Perhaps she was giving play to a part of her that liked to over expose, and to play the provocateur. Maybe she was a lot nicer in person. We shall never know. And, either way, it's a hell of a legacy to leave for posterity and we're grateful.

So, the spoiler... she just died.

Seriously, it was a fucking abrupt end to a book.

There she was, climbing the Pyrenees, galivanting through Russia, being taken aghast by pagan Buddhist ways... when she just upped and died. Seems she exercised obsessively and hardly ate a thing, and in the end her body just gave out. But there wasn't much forewarning. I was sitting there waiting for a conclusion and that was pretty much it - The End.

So, uh, I guess to match that sudden finale.


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