Changes can evolve over time or occur in the blink of an eye. Looking back over the past two years, I marvel at all that has occurred in my life and who I am today as a result. September 2021—and everything leading up to it—stands out.
In November 2019, I was searching for answers as to why a TV show about a 19th century lesbian I had never heard of had touched me so profoundly. I thought I’d find clues in Anne Lister’s hometown, and I was right. Talking to people in Halifax and those who were experiencing the same reaction was a good place to start to unravel the mystery. It reinforced the feeling in my bones that Something Big was happening to women like me around the world, and I had to write about it.
My No. 1 cheerleader was my best friend who, after my constant nagging, finally had watched Gentleman Jack for herself and also had fallen under its spell. It took some doing on my part, but I convinced Erile that she should go with me to the Anne Lister Birthday Weekend that was scheduled in April 2020. She would take notes during the 12+ interviews I had lined up, and we would meet women like us from around the world, and it would be a fantastic trip.
Life can change in an instant.
On February 19, 2020, Erile Sue Casey committed suicide. In March 2020, the coronavirus pandemic closed down the world and upended everything, and of course, the highly anticipated Anne Lister Birthday Weekend had to be cancelled.
I was devastated by all three of these shattering blows that I didn’t see coming, and my spirits were dashed. My plan for a book about the effect of Gentleman Jack was on the verge of collapsing.
But the transformative phenomenon associated with Gentleman Jack and/or Anne Lister that so many were experiencing didn't stop because of a global lockdown or my personal heartache. I soon discovered Zoom and set about to talk to anyone who’d share their experiences with me. Month after month, I interviewed women and men around the world, and a beautiful tapestry of courage, confidence, transformation, friendship, romance, admiration, adventure, creativity, and curiosity began to take shape.
The 200-page book I had anticipated grew and grew—to nearly double in size. By the summer of 2021, 18 months after I started conducting interviews (my first was with Jolene Coady and Gen McGarvey-Tanenbaum and the resulting story is on p. 161 in The Gentleman Jack Effect), I began to fashion 90,000+ words into an illustrated book of 62 stories.
And where better to introduce The Gentleman Jack Effect to the world than Halifax, the place where the idea was born? Two of Halifax's most gracious and incredible women—Rachel Lappin (p. 93) and Nicky Chance-Thompson (p. 104)—made everything fall into place. I found myself headed back across the pond to Gentleman Jack territory where now, less than two years after my first visit, I am no longer a stranger. Because of Gentleman Jack, by far I have more friends and acquaintances in Halifax than the town where I live 4,785 miles away.
The Gentleman Jack Effect is my first book, and I didn’t know what kind of response to expect. Would anyone show up for my book signing at the Book Corner in the Piece Hall? Would I know what to say during my talk with Helena Whitbread and Jill Liddington at Square Chapel? Would the right words come out of my mouth at the Minster memorial service commemorating Anne Lister’s death 181 years ago?
Yes. Yes. And yes.
My many doubts and fears began to ease the first time I signed my name on the title page of the book that Gentleman Jack and Anne Lister had inspired.
The many times I considered throwing in the towel because writing a book is hard, Anne Lister was whispering in my ear to just get on with it. My concerns that no one would like what I had written began to let up when many said my book had touched them in one way or another.
Equally gratifying was rubbing shoulders with the grand dames of Anne Lister World. I will always be grateful to Helena Whitbread and Jill Liddington for their encouragement and support when I met each woman during my first trip to Halifax and again many months later when each wrote a wonderful endorsement for my book and we shared the stage on Friday, September 24, to talk about the Gentleman Jack effect before an attentive crowd.
As launch weekend unfolded, things just got better and better. Also on Friday was a touching memorial service at the Halifax Minster organized by Rev. Jane Finn to celebrate Anne Lister’s life. I was honored to be one of the speakers before guests were invited to approach the altar and light a candle for Anne or whomever they wished to acknowledge. Anyone who's had the privilege of meeting Jane Finn (p. 72) will agree that her kindness, compassion, and support are balm for the many souls who have been ill-treated by organized religion. Bonus: How many churches serve beer and wine after a service?
Nicky Chance-Thompson, CEO of The Piece Hall, hosted a lovely dinner on Saturday night at The Piece Hall. Imagine my astonishment when I landed at the head table with Nicky, Helena, Jill, and Sally Wainwright. My grandmother would have bragged to her friends that her granddaughter was "in high cotton." The dinner menu was based on references Anne Lister had made to meals she'd enjoyed, and the conversation was lively. Had Anne herself been there, she would certainly have described Saturday as a very fine day indeed.
You'd think this all of this would be enough excitement for a new author, but there was still more to come on Sunday, September 26, with the unveiling of Contemplation, Diane Lawrenson’s new statue of Anne Lister in the expansive courtyard of The Piece Hall. Sunday was a glorious and sunny fall day with an excited group of families, dignitaries, and enthusiastic Gentleman Jack fans on hand for the occasion. I don't mind admitting that meeting and talking with Suranne Jones was a thrill. So was watching her sign copies of my book that the several of the fans held out for her autograph. Truly, she is as nice as she is beautiful.
But wait, there's more...
Next up on Monday, September 27, was a delightful interview in the Minster with kindred spirit Pat Esgate (p.121) for her ALBW Live series that was broadcast on October 2. If you missed it, you can find it here on YouTube.
Bottom line: I can heartily recommend the experience of 15 Minutes of Fame. Though it wasn't he who actually said it, artist Andy Warhol gets the credit for coming up with the phrase that refers to having a short-lived period in the spotlight. It's not exactly an original concept. Back in the days of Elizabeth 1 (1558-1603), the expression was "nine days' wonder." My "fifteen minutes" covered four unforgettable days, and I happy to say it seems to be having flare-ups here and there as the days go by.
I was fortunate to have shared my "mini-celebrity" moments in Halifax with new friends and more than a dozen of the contributors to my book, including Brian Hildred (p.117), Steve Crabtree (p. 218), David Glover (p. 67), Kirsty Davies (p.113), Les Brown (p.142), Diane Halford (p. 224), Alex Tansley (p. 230), Bev Rowley (p. 248), Miche Tucker (p. 273), Jenny Corkett (p. 20), and Jennifer Grant (p. 100).
Change for all of us, of course, happens in many ways and for many reasons.
I am not the same person I was when I first watched Gentleman Jack in the spring of 2019. My life is richer for having met the people whose stories are in my book. My life is fuller for the new friendships I have made. I am awed and inspired by the many examples of courage I have seen. I am more proud than ever to be part of a global community of lesbians and our allies. I am even more grateful than I was before to have a life partner who gave me the room and time and support to write a book, something I’ve always wanted to do but never thought I could.
Two months before she died, Erile gave me a beautiful pink gold antique pocket watch—to remind me I was in Anne Lister’s league she said. She would have insisted on having the first signed copy of my book. She would have wanted to meet every person I wrote about. Her shocking death changed me, forcing me for months to deal with a bitter concoction of grief, loneliness, and anger, and leaving me stronger for having come out on the other side of it.
The pocket watch is in a box on my desk below the bulletin board where I’ve tacked a postcard of Anne Lister’s portrait signed on the back by Anne Choma and dated 22 September 2019. Before I even met them, Hazel Clink and Joanne Monk (p. 155) kindly mailed me the postcard that they got at Shibden Hall in the early post-Gentleman Jack heady days of fandom, and it's evidence of the many connections that social media has fostered among so many women around the world. Also on the bulletin board is a photograph of Shibden Hall that I took during my first visit. I use a rock from the grounds at Shibden as a paperweight. In short, evidence and the spirit of Anne Lister is always present.
Many have asked me what comes next.
This weekly blog is a start to keep me writing regularly. Now I also am taking on the daunting challenge of promoting my book in hopes that others will be as moved and inspired as I have been by the many stories of transformation that The Gentleman Jack Effect includes. For the next few weeks and months, I’m delighted to be working with Pat Esgate and the terrific team that’s putting together ALBW in April 2022.
And an idea for another book is percolating. More about that soon.
I’d love to hear from those of you who’ll be meeting me here on future Wednesdays. Got a question? Just ask. Have a comment? I’d love to hear it.
Until next time, be brave, be bold, and be like Anne.