BBC unveils drama about 'first modern lesbian'

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The life and times of Anne Lister, the woman dubbed the first modern lesbian by scholars of sexuality and known as Gentleman Jack to her Yorkshire neighbours, is to be the subject of a lavish new costume drama.

Shameless star Maxine Peake, whose previous roles include Myra Hindley, is due to play the heroine in the one-off special for BBC Two. Filming of The Scandalous Diaries of Anne Lister is expected to get underway next month at the 19th century polymath’s former home Shibden Hall near Halifax which she shared with her “wife” - another local heiress called Anne Walker with whom she underwent a same-sex marriage ceremony.

Lister chronicled her pioneering life and wide-ranging travels as well as her relationships in an at times sexually charged four million word collection of diaries which she kept until her premature death in 1840 aged 51 after being bitten by an insect while travelling in the Caucasus Mountains.

Large parts of the journals were encrypted and only decoded in the 1930s. She developed the special code to exchange letters with her first lover Eliza Raine and then the married Marianna Belcombe Lawton with whom she maintained a relationship for 16 years.

While the diaries are at times sexually explicit, Lister referred to orgasms as “kisses”, marking her diary with a cross to indicate when she had experienced one.

Shunning the conventions of the time, she adopted a masculine style and always dressed in black. She was the first woman to be elected to the committee of the Halifax Literary and Philosophical Society and was known as a tenacious businesswoman who developed coal mining interests on her estate and oversaw major improvements to the 15th century manor house she inherited from her uncle.

Among the entries she made in the diaries was one from October 1820 which read: "I love and only love the fairer sex and thus beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any love but theirs." Another from the same year said: "Yet my manners are certainly peculiar, not all masculine but rather softly gentleman-like. I know how to please girls.”