An army of female codebreakers is working to transcribe the diaries of Gentleman Jack’s Anne Lister

Gentleman Jack

More than a hundred mostly female codebreakers have joined forces to transcribe the diaries of the famous Halifax landowner Anne Lister, who is known as “the first modern lesbian.”

Born in 1791, Lister was a prolific diarist who wrote from the age of 15 until her death in 1840. Her extraordinary life has become the subject of documentaries, theatre plays and an acclaimed BBC series, Gentleman Jack.

Lister’s journals amount to an estimated five million words across at least 20 volumes, all written in a secret ‘crypthand’ she devised herself, based on a combination of algebra and the Greek alphabet.

Fifty years after her death a descendant was finally able to crack it, but kept the diaries a secret as he feared they would draw attention to his own homosexuality (this still being illegal at the time).

Thanks to a rediscovery by another descendant in the 1980s, Lister’s story is now better known than ever before. However, much of her diaries remain untranscribed – which is where the The Anne Lister Diary Transcription Project comes in.

The project began in July and now numbers 104 volunteers across the globe, who are working to transform Lister’s journals into a format easily accessible by all.

Some volunteers are academics, many are lesbians, most are women. Tweeting under the hashtag #AnneListerCodeBreaker, the cryptic codebreakers regularly share snippets of the steamy stories they’re uncovering.

“The code is really easy once you have learned it as it is a pretty straightforward substitution cypher,” Dorjana Širola, originally from Croatia, told The Yorkshire Post, noting that Lister’s plainhand is often harder to read than her code.

“I feel I am getting to know Anne by living through her entries with her. She gets more fascinating and complex, exasperating yet relatable by the day. Her world grows alive before your eyes.”

Her fellow transcriber, Dutch lesbian Janneke van der Weijden, also feels a connection with the 17th century heiress through her writings.

“It’s not that I had a terrible time, but I did struggle with my sexuality for a while. To read about Anne Lister’s strength of character, her absolute belief in herself is just life-affirming,” van der Weijden said.

“Besides her sexuality, she is obviously also an example as a woman who moved in a patriarchal society and managed her businesses, her land and her tenants – someone who deserves our admiration.”

Managed by the West Yorkshire Archive Service, transcription project intends to decode every diary page and make them freely available alongside the diary images in an online catalogue. Each page is transcribed by two codebreakers for accuracy.

To find out more or to get involved, click here.

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