“I love and only love the fairer sex, and thus beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any love but theirs.”
If you’re anything like me, you might be wondering how the hell you hadn’t heard of Anne Lister until approximately two months ago. If you still haven’t, allow me to introduce you to what is perhaps one of the most radical pieces of lesbian history somehow kept a secret for the best part of a hundred and fifty years. That secret is the four-million-word, twenty-six-volume, handwritten diary kept by Lister between 1806 and her death in 1840, detailing her unconventional life as a landowner, keen scholar, and lesbian.
It’s no great mystery why Lister’s diary was both initially encrypted in code, and later kept hidden by her surviving family members but, thanks to contemporary research and a growing public interest in LGBTQ history, the latter years of Lister’s diary have been developed into Gentleman Jack. The eight-episode series by producer and writer Sally Wainwright is not the first time Lister’s life has been adapted for the screen, but is certainly already the most extensive and popularised portrayal of the ‘first modern lesbian.’ With Suranne Jones taking the lead, and starring Sophie Rundle as Lister’s love interest Ann Walker, Gentleman Jack is both an enlightening historical document and a deeply intimate romance that is changing the game in on-screen lesbian representation.
Beginning in 1832, Anne Lister returns from Paris to her home at Shibden Hall, Halifax. She has inherited the estate from her late uncle, and Anne assumes the role of landlord, much to the chagrin of her younger sister Marian. Though well-liked in Halifax and revered for her intellect, hardiness and charisma, Anne is reluctantly nursing a broken heart. She left Paris mourning an engagement; that of her lover, Vere, to a man. Bitterly betrayed, Anne channels her energy into a new business pursuit: sinking a coal pit to further profit from her land. A cursory call by her neighbours introduces Anne to “wealthy little Miss Walker,” a painfully shy heiress who is immediately entranced by Anne’s charm. Sensing a lucrative opportunity, Anne gets to know Miss Walker and her affairs, but soon finds herself equally infatuated.
What feels most revolutionary about Gentleman Jack is that Anne’s sexuality is never in question, least of all by herself. This is personified by Suranne Jones’ impressive performance, everything from her tenacious attitude to her formidable stride portray Lister as a woman not to be reckoned with. What’s more, Wainwright manages to sensitively and honestly navigate lesbian desire and identity in a time where an identity-based understanding of sexuality didn’t actually even exist. Homosexuality may have been acknowledged as a practice (and an illegal one at that), but was not widely considered to be a legitimate identity until the turn of the 20th century. It is remarkable, then, that Anne Lister was not only able to identify her desires with quite some conviction, but be relatively at peace with them in the eyes of God.
This becomes particularly apparent in Anne’s desire to marry – she believes that her clandestine connections with women are just as wrong as any other extra-marital relationship. She isn’t willing to settle for anything less than love and commitment, something that her close friend and long-time lover Mariana Lawton was not able to provide. Anne and Mariana’s relationship remains a continual focus of the series – the latter’s marriage to a much older man for security drove the two women apart, though they remain close friends. Despite maintaining an occasional sexual relationship, Anne wants to be able to live together as wives, and despairs to be rendered Mariana’s dirty secret. During a candid conversation in bed, Mariana confesses to Anne that she thinks the type of woman Anne needs simply doesn’t exist. Indeed, the risk of societal abjection might just be too great.
Nevertheless, Anne finds herself becoming increasingly intimate with Ann Walker, whose hesitance blossoms into flustered affection as the two spend time together. Walker is to Lister as the day is to night – everything that Anne takes pride in, Ann finds impossible to express. The romance that blossoms between the two seems initially imbalanced; Anne is bold and calculated in her pursuit of the younger woman. During a regular visit to Miss Walker’s home at Crow Nest, Anne makes her advances. Though initially agitated and dismissive, it is clear that Ann finds herself unwittingly reciprocating. The two finally share a kiss in a secluded woodland hut; a scene that is ever so tentative yet beckons a profound development of both characters.
Ann Walker’s characterisation is decidedly more complicated than that of Anne Lister. Everything we initially learn about her is from an outsiders’ perspective; she is sickly, anxious, and unable to manage her own affairs. Despite her obscene wealth, she is desperately lonely, and her overbearing relations take advantage of her passivity. Even Anne Lister has her written off as insipid and girlish, but she soon comes to care for Miss Walker in ways she does not expect. Lister’s boldness begins to rub off on Ann, who admits that she feels like an entirely new person in her company. Though Ann may not initially realise it, we the viewers know that she has simply never been provided the means with which to express herself. Anne Lister, meanwhile, is candid in her attraction to women – a concept that both titillates and terrifies Ann Walker.
In many ways, Ann’s narrative arc is as arresting – if not more so – than Anne’s. She is only beginning to process what Anne has been at peace with for decades; something that Anne comes to realise. Though she is deeply frustrated with Ann’s inability to commit to her, she learns that it is only through love and patient reassurance that she can help Ann come to terms with her feelings. In fact, it is only when Ann initially rejects her that Anne realises just how deeply she cares for the woman; what began as a business-only investment has become impossible to shake off. Ann, meanwhile, wrestles not with her feelings for another woman, but with the overwhelming fear instilled in her by religion and polite society. Though she freely admits the complete repugnance she feels towards men, Ann is sent spiralling by the social obligation tied to an unexpected proposal of marriage.
The beauty of Gentleman Jack is that both women come to learn from one another, and the apparent power imbalance levels to one of mutual respect and understanding. And though Ann Walker’s character arc is increasingly disconcerting in terms of her mental health, the narrative does not exploit her suffering or render her character a woeful victim. Ann is permitted to explore her lesbian identity on her own terms, and though I desperately wanted her to commit to Anne, I needed it to be entirely her own decision. It is a credit to Sophie Rundle’s subtly determined performance that Ann’s narrative is one of empowerment and taking ownership of her happiness, instead of wallowing in her misery.
The intimate scenes between the two women are some of the most touching and authentic of any lesbian romance depicted on television that I have seen; the chemistry between Jones and Rundle clearly builds on screen in real time. Gentleman Jack has its fair share of raunchy scenes, but it’s as much in the tender kisses and soft touches of reassurance that intimacy is communicated between the two women. There is something, I think, uniquely Sapphic about the focus on lingering hands and fleeting eye contact – stolen moments of closeness that are as exhilarating as when the relationship is finally consummated. Of course, the illicitness of Anne and Ann’s relationship is intensified by the social mores of the Regency period, but it’s a feeling not unfamiliar to myself and many other queer women today.
Another compelling aspect of Gentleman Jack is the intermittent fourth-wall-break, recently popularised by BBC Three’s Fleabag. Infrequent enough that they do not overpower the narrative, Anne Lister’s sly glances towards the camera instead feel like knowing winks to her lesbian audience. It’s no coincidence that these moments are usually accompanied by an inappropriate joke or the appearance of an attractive woman. Anne stares out at us as if to say – how could I not? The humour of Gentleman Jack is frequently at the expense of its more close-minded characters – those of us in the know get to enjoy Anne’s overtly queer behaviour right under the noses of her conservative peers. The most deftly edited gag of the series is without a doubt the perfect cut that illustrates exactly what Anne alludes to by her “studying anatomy in Paris.” These cunning nods to the audience reinforce the affirmative feeling that Gentleman Jack is not just a show about, but for, lesbians. Of course, the queer content is flaunted a little more perspicuously than the period would allow, but it feels right that Lister is allowed to connect with her audience so brazenly.
Unless you had the resilience to not read Anne Lister’s Wikipedia page before starting Gentleman Jack, you already know how it ends. Whilst I’m usually not one for spoilers, there is admittedly something wholly comforting in that there is no way Anne and Ann aren’t going to end up together. I’ve played witness to far too many lesbian love stories that have ended in tragedy, invested far too much time and gullible energy in writing that has no respect for women like me. That doesn’t make Gentleman Jack predictable; the narrative is able to maintain suspense and drama through the complications of the journey, rather than the impossibility of the outcome.
Gentleman Jack is a worthy tribute to its namesake – both drawing directly from the diaries and embellishing with a little creative license, Sally Wainwright has crafted a singularly remarkable piece of television. For myself and many other lesbian viewers, it is a wholly life-affirming story, and one that allows us to connect to our history in a way that feels so comfortingly familiar. And knowing that the series is in the hands of such a capable and caring cast and crew, who so deeply value and respect the story they are telling, is uniquely validating. Even more reassuringly, the series has already been commissioned for a further eight episodes – though we will likely have to wait until at least 2021 to explore more of Anne and Ann’s adventures. Nevertheless, the genuine care, research, and integrity breathed into Gentleman Jack’s first episodes suggest that the next eight will be well worth the wait.
by Megan Wilson
Categories: Anything and Everything