Gentleman Jack: The life and times of “the first modern lesbian”
Frustrated by the Sapphic post-coital suggestion she should marry a man, for a title and wealth, Anne Lister replies: “I could never marry a man, not for any reason, under any circumstances. It would be perverse … absurd.
“I thoroughly intend to live with someone I love. I thoroughly intend to spend my evening with someone who loves me. Someone who is there – all of the time, to share everything with.”
This was 1832 in West Yorkshire, England. Lister, whose search for a wife is the subject of the HBO/BBC series Gentleman Jack, has been called “the first modern lesbian”, which she may well have been – she certainly lived fairly openly as such, a luxury that her wealth afforded her – but as much as that aspect of her life is titillating audiences in 2019, we shouldn’t overlook her many great strengths as a landowner, businesswoman and intrepid traveller.
Gentleman Jack takes its title from one of Lister’s nicknames, and is based on her prolific diaries – estimated at some four million or so words. Suranne Jones, who plays Lister, shared some of the fascinating background when she was recently a guest on Graham Norton’s red couch.
Lister documented every detail of her life – her thoughts on the weather, social events, national events, and her business interests – as well as her sexuality. That part was written in a complex code that combined the Greek alphabet, zodiac, punctuation, and mathematical symbols.
After Lister died in 1840, this code was deciphered by the last inhabitant of the Lister family homestead Shibden Hall, John Lister (1847–1933) and a friend of his, Arthur Burrell. When the content of the secret passages was revealed, Burrell advised John Lister to burn all the diaries. Lister did not take this advice, but instead continued to hide Anne’s diaries behind a panel at Shibden Hall.
And that is how they survived to become the foundation of this series, created by celebrated TV writer, producer and director Sally Wainwright, who grew up in the environs of Shibden Hall and had had ambitions to write a drama based on Anne Lister for more than 20 years. It all seems so right, doesn’t it?
In the first episode, we meet Elizabeth Priestley (Amelia Bullmore), who regularly features in the diaries as one of the author’s closest confidantes, in conversation with pretty Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle).
“I’ve always been a great champion of Miss Lister, haven’t I, William?” she says, as an aside to her husband. “Despite what they say. You see, I appreciate her clever mind and her adventurous spirit. It is true she isn’t always as feminine as some people would like her to be. But she’s an original. She’s natural. She’s true to her own nature, and as she herself says, when we leave nature behind we leave our only steady guide.”
It’s difficult not to fall in love with Gentleman Jack. After all, how could you not be endeared to someone who says banality and mediocrity are the only two things that ever really frightened her?
The superpower combination of HBO and BBC bring us a period drama that is as lush in appearance as it is in its subject matter, with a lead performance by Jones that is a joy to behold.