Gentleman Jack is one of the most important shows on television right now. Sally Wainwright helms the new addition to BBC and HBO, which follows the historical figure Anne Lister (played by Suranne Jones) of 1830s Halifax as she manages her late uncle’s Shibden Hall estate and courts her future wife Ann Walker (played by Sophie Rundle). The show’s first season explores her business debates with mining rivals, her management of Shibden Hall, her relationship with her sister Marian Lister (played by Gemma Whelan), along with some of her romantic and sexual relationships with women. There are many things that make Lister fascinating; she was confident, energetic, a brilliant businesswoman as well as a self-taught scholar. She was also an extremely well documented lesbian with an unwavering sense of self, before the terms “lesbian” or even “homosexual” existed, and in a time when most women were uneducated and raised to have very little self-confidence. We know this thanks to her meticulously kept journals totalling over five million words, chronicling nearly every day of her life from her teenage years to her death.
It is clear, reading Lister’s journals along with the show, that many fragments of dialogue were taken verbatim from her own words, with the rest written in a similar voice. Wainwright extends the same level of authenticity and research to the set, as the show itself is shot on location at the real Shibden Hall in Halifax; the camera literally following in Lister’s footsteps, roaming through the real life halls and outdoor locations she walked and existed nearly 200 years ago. Wainwright’s twenty years of research coupled with the real Halifax location, quotes from Lister’s diaries, and input from lesbian crew such as Lister scholar Anne Choma all give Gentleman Jack a realistic lesbian gaze unlike anything else on television. What makes the show so profound is the history behind it, the fact that without people like Choma and Wainwright we would never even know Lister’s story. They brought this brilliant woman to life despite years of rejection from networks and now she can tell us her own story. Before there were words to articulate lesbian sexuality and desire, Lister was inventing her own language, finding the right words and expressing her sense of self in print. These documents are incredibly valuable, and the television adaptation makes an important contribution to lesbian representation on screen as well as how lesbians are perceived throughout history.
Lesbians have always existed, but we are invisible throughout much of history. Even today, I have seen academics continue to dismiss established written evidence of lesbian love as obvious as in the ancient poetry of Sappho. As far as popular documented historical fact is concerned, we are completely invisible, if we even exist at all. That is why the acquisition and translation of Anne Lister’s diaries is incredibly important, and the adaptation of those diaries to screens everywhere is revolutionary. I can’t think of any other TV period piece that is gay from the first episode and doesn’t side-line their gay characters to an obscure background story or kill them off. Lister documented her life and loves in print so meticulously that even her archaic coded language wasn’t enough to hide her lesbian sexuality. Even living from 1791 to 1840, she knew that she could only love women and wanted to marry a woman. She left no room for compromise and neither does Wainwright’s adaptation. Everything in Suranne Jones’s portrayal of Lister reflects a queer consciousness, from her decisive fast walk to her flirtatious glances at beautiful women.
Gentleman Jack, at its core, is a conversation between lesbian audiences and Anne Lister herself. In the style of the film version of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1992), another famously queer text adapted to the screen by a woman, the show involves the audience in a conversation with the main character through direct eye contact with the camera and several monologues constructed of partial quotes from Lister’s diaries. In Lister’s opening scene, she slyly glances at the audience and in true Shakespearean fashion, shares her inner thoughts with us. Lister haphazardly drives a large carriage into Halifax much to the dismay of the townspeople. Her maid Eugenie (played by Albane Courtois) vomits as she finally steps on level ground and Lister scoffs; “Must be my driving.” Lister then climbs over a hillside, past the gaping mouths of young girls watching her, and with dramatic narration describes her life as an “Icarus.” This is just the first of many monologues taken directly from Lister’s diaries and the audience is taken aback when she finishes the narration by breaking the fourth wall, speaking directly to us.
Gentleman Jack is unapologetically geared towards a lesbian audience and Lister’s narration and acknowledgement of that audience allows us to share an intimate conversation with her. She looks to the future and talks directly to us, a lesbian audience in the know, instead of sharing her intimacies with her contemporaries, many of whom were ignorant to the nuances of her life and lovers. We know what she means even with no words; when she glances at us with an angry stare or raises an eyebrow and smirks, because we have been in situations where we can’t be explicit about our desires and our inner feelings contradict our outer speech. This blatant conversation with the audience, along with Lister’s queer confidence and unapologetic need to be herself at all costs, puts forth a lesbian gaze few if any other television shows have. Not only do we see this powerful and confident gender-nonconforming lesbian woman, a real-life figure, in a time which we were all but invisible, but we see everything in the show through her words and perspective. In the same episode, we can see her have anatomically correct lesbian sex (a miraculous television feat on its own) and debate the price of coal and acreage with skill.
One of the most striking and important scenes of the show is in its fifth episode, when Lister is in bed with Walker. She pauses in contemplation while having sex, which makes Walker stop and ask what’s wrong. Nothing I’ve ever seen on television has made me feel more seen as a gender nonconforming lesbian than the monologue that follows. Lister has trained herself to be strong and show no outward pain or vulnerabilities as a survival technique. For the first time we truly see the depth of Lister’s emotion and frustration at being misunderstood by everyone around her. “Every day, I rise above it… I walk into a room or down the street and I see the way people look at me, and the things they say. And I rise above it, because I’ve trained myself… and I forget just how hard it is for someone else to accept that.” We finally hear why Anne “I’m always alright” Lister doesn’t ask for help or show her true feelings when she’s beat up by a homophobic thug or called a “fella in a frock” or a “Jack” on the street. She’s tough and smart, but her complexity and vulnerability underneath are what make her so relatable. Of course, the best part is that we know she gets the girl in the end, they historically get married and spend the rest of her life together. The season finale gives us one of the most romantic scenes in television history and it’s between two independent, gay women in 1830s Halifax.
This lesbian representation on screen is more valuable than Sally Wainwright or Suranne Jones could ever know. Even though Jones, and Rundle are straight, the show has a distinct lesbian gaze unlike any other television show. The script editor, historian, and several other important crew members are lesbians and their work on the authenticity of the show shines through. Neither Lister nor Walker is objectified, and the story isn’t only about Lister’s lesbian identity as the previous Anne Lister movie adaptation The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010) was. Gentleman Jack is about the life of a woman who is at odds with the societal gender norms of her time and can only be described by just about every other character in the show as “a bit odd.” In her time, she was a creature to be stared at, in either malice or amazement. With this adaptation, we can now celebrate with her everything that made her different and special as we relate to her struggles and triumphs in ways she probably never thought were possible. Anne Lister was invisible in history, and now thanks to Sally Wainwright she’s immortalized for generations to come.
Janet Reinschmidt (She/They) is a Media Studies MA student at The University of Texas at Austin. She is an aspiring audiovisual archivist and film historian specializing in LGBT identity and women’s stories in media. She is passionate about silent film and old Hollywood, dogs, and Lily Tomlin’s comedy albums. 2019 marks the sixth year in a row that Janet has nominated the film Stage Door for consideration to the Nation Film Preservation Board.