Television

Gentleman Jack’s Hidden History

A new series from Happy Valley’s creator tells the story of “the first modern lesbian.”

Suranne Jones in a dark suit in Gentleman Jack.
Suranne Jones as Anne Lister in Gentleman Jack.
HBO

What we know about Anne Lister is remarkable enough. Born in 1791 in Northern England, she was the first known climber of the highest mountain in the French Pyrenees, a student of brain surgery under Georges Cuvier in Paris, the engineer of her own coal mines, and a diarist whose millions of words encompassed two dozen volumes, much of it in a code that wouldn’t be broken until nearly a century after her death. But Lister is best known today for marrying another woman in 1834, earning her the title, in some circles, of the “first modern lesbian.”

In the new HBO drama Gentleman Jack, named after one of Lister’s sobriquets, creator and sole writer Sally Wainwright (Happy Valley, Last Tango in Halifax) imagines what we can’t know. Wainwright gives us a profoundly human heroine who’s never just an idealistic queer woman, or an elitist landowner, or a tough but finesse-lacking entrepreneur, or a would-be intellectual whose giddiness during an autopsy proves infectious, but a multifaceted character who never wants to sacrifice any part of herself or her prerogatives. Between Wainwright’s crisp, fair-minded scripts and star Suranne Jones’ flawless performance, it’s tempting to believe that Anne Lister was the most fascinating person of the 19th century, both a product of her time and an anti-conformist whose forward thinking would not be appreciated in its entirety during her lifetime.

At the start of Gentleman Jack, the well-traveled, Paris-obsessed Anne dreads returning even for the shortest of spells to “my shabby little [estate] and my shabby little family.” But as she faces her 40s, nursing heartbreak once again, Anne decides that her next romantic target—a wealthy younger woman with no inclination toward (heterosexual) marriage named Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle)—might be worth the trouble of settling down in her provincial hometown. Anne desperately wants never-ending fireworks in a lifelong partnership, but her courtship of the painfully sheltered Miss Walker is like any man’s would have been, both economically motivated and alarmingly contingent on convincing a relative stranger to make a momentous, unalterable decision in a panic attack–inducing-ly brief period of time.

Jones is intoxicatingly seductive in her virile hyperconfidence and androgynous, all-black clothes (men’s shirts, jackets, and coats, always paired with a long skirt). In the first few episodes (there are eight all told), Anne has to bewitch Miss Walker while broaching the possibility of Sapphic love itself—a lesson she teaches with an appreciative gaze and a wolfish smile. Sexy and funny in equal measure, these drawing-room scenes, in which Anne inches closer to Miss Walker as the gorgeously lurid tendrils in the wallpaper seem to come alive, swell the tensions inherent to the situation. Is Anne exploiting Miss Walker’s lack of sexual experience or introducing the young woman to herself for the first time? Does Anne really see a future with Miss Walker, or is she simply trying to fill the hole left by her previous lover? Can we truly root for Anne’s triumph when Miss Walker has little idea of the rumors swirling around them and appears unready to contend with the locals’ vicious hostility to their “unnatural” pleasures? And by opening up Miss Walker’s realm of possibilities, is Anne liberating her or inadvertently leading her into a trap?

Gentleman Jack is full of such ambivalences, never letting us forget what an original Anne is, while suggesting that a lifetime of asserting herself in order to get what she wants—and usually having the weight of moral authority behind her—may have left her ill-prepared for cooperation or compromise. A scheme to sell the coal buried on her land runs her afoul of powerful, connected brothers (Shaun Dooley and Vincent Franklin) who are just as determined as she is but unfettered by her social disadvantages and Darcy-esque inflexibility. And because every scene with Anne feels so ripe and distinct, the ones that expand the village of Halifax, including a murder cover-up and a hit-and-run mystery, add suspense but inevitably feel rote in comparison, making the hourlong episodes feel slightly longer than they should.

It’s impossible not to be reminded of The Favourite, with its near-absurdist mix of period-drama tropes and modern disruptions. Wainwright doesn’t feature anything as overt as Yorgos Lanthimos’ psychedelic rabbits, but the chic sets can be almost garishly colorful, and Anne’s born-this-way queer theorizing feels a little too pat. The gestures toward the latter day are fun, but I found myself relieved when the show would force Anne back to her Regency settings, where we could observe how she clings to the caste system that enables her personal freedoms or how the habitual confinement of wealthy women could lend itself to lesbian affairs. Anne can’t help testing how open she can be—with her family, her servants, her would-be in-laws, the world at large. It’s a lot more than you might think, but nowhere near enough.