So many things to say…
J. Lynn Stapleton
There are so many things to appreciate about the entirety of Gentleman Jack that I scarcely know where to begin. I’d been massively looking forward to this series since I heard of its conception sometime last year. Though I hadn’t known much about Anne Lister or her diaries until a couple of years ago, when I found out about the 2010 telefilm, The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister starring Maxine Peake, this new series project looked amazing.
To wit, I have long been a fan of Sally Wainwright’s writing, since the beginning days of Scott & Bailey, following through with the likes of Unforgiven, Last Tango in Halifax, Happy Valley, and more recently, To Walk Invisible: The Brontë Sisters. For those who might not have known, Scott & Bailey was the brain-child of Suranne Jones & Sally Lindsay (Coronation Street co-stars; Lindsay played Rachel’s sister, Allison Bailey, in Scott & Bailey); Suranne brought the treatment to Sally Wainwright to develop into a series. Suranne was also the lead in Wainwright’s three-part drama, “Unforgiven”. I love Sally Wainwright’s attention to detail, and her wonderful knack of writing women, bringing an authenticity to their interactions. So much of her writing is focused on women because she has said many times over that that is the kind of television that she likes to watch herself, so she writes it.
The pairing of Wainwright’s writing and directing this series – one that’s she’s worked on for 20 years before it finally was green-lit for production – and of Suranne as Anne Lister were the first draws to the series. Add in the pairing of Sophie Rundle (of Happy Valley, The Bletchley Circle, and Peaky Blinders) as Ann Walker, and you’ve got a wonderful start. Then you add into the mix, Scott & Bailey alum, Amelia Bullmore as Mrs Eliza Priestly, Gemma Whelan (Game of Thrones), Gemma Jones (Spooks, Rocketman, Last Tango in Halifax, Unforgotten), George Costigan (Scott & Bailey [S3], Happy Valley [S1]), Joe Armstrong (Happy Valley), Peter Davison (Doctor Who, Law & Order UK), Rosie Cavaliero (Cleaning Up, Unforgotten, Prey), and a slew of other notable Northern actors.
Anne Choma’s 30 year history of working on transcribing Anne Lister’s diaries. upon which she wrote her Masters Thesis – “Anne Lister and the Split Self (1791-1840): A Critical Study of Her Diaries”, University of Leeds, (1994), hugely helped form the basis upon which Wainwright’s series was written. Utilising roughly 300,000 words from Lister’s diaries, the series focused on the period of 1832-1834 for the first series. Her companion book to the series, “Gentleman Jack: The Real Anne Lister” has currently reached Amazon’s Best Seller lists in multiple countries.
Jill Liddington (Female Fortune: The Anne Lister Diaries and Other Writings 1833-36: Land, Gender and Authority”, ) and Helena Whitbread (The Secret Diaries Of Miss Anne Lister: The Inspiration for Gentleman Jack,  and No Priest but Love: No Priest But Love: A. Lister – Cutting Edge: Lesbian Life & Literature ) are also notable historians focusing on the life and diaries of Anne Lister, and upon whose works were drawn for the series.
Huddersfield, Yorkshire folk wife duo, Belinda O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow wrote and performed the show’s closing title track, “Gentleman Jack” (O’Hooley & Tidow – “The Fragile” ). The two have been touring and selling out venues around the UK. The catchy title tune is a wonderful ear worm to be caught singing (internally or aloud). Their album, “The Fragile” has also been soaring to the top of folk charts, as well, the other songs on the album are lovely, and get frequent playing on my mobile. They currently have six albums: The Fragile (2011), Silent June (2010), The Hum (2014), Summat’s Brewin’ (2015 – a limited edition release of 1000 copies), Shadows (2016), Winterfolk, Vol I (2017)
Now, onto the series. I do apologise in advance if this seems somewhat incoherent, because trust me, this show exceeds any expectation I might have ever had. Suranne’s specific nuances as Anne Lister, whether they be utterly formidable and at times ruthless as landowner and business woman, to deeply vulnerable, and protective in her personal life, are enthralling to watch. Anne was remarkably well fit, oft times walking more than ten miles a day (about 4 miles each way to Lightcliffe [Ann Walker’s residence]), and working the grounds with her tenants, and she was a polymath.
When Anne Lister returns to her home at Shibden Hall, Halifax, Yorkshire, it’s following the utter rejection of Vere Hobart’s affections when the latter chose to marry a man, especially as it was not the first time that Anne’s faced that kind of rejection. Past loves such as Mariana Lawton (neé Belcombe) and Isabella Norcliffe both married for status. She also had suffered the humiliation of returning to Halifax instead of further travel to the continent, due to financial constraints – while she was vastly intelligent and moved in higher social circles, Anne Lister was not a wealthy woman. Though Anne is very charismatic, her social foibles sometimes get the best of her in upper class social circles, leaving an impression that is not always positive. Her gender non-conformity to certain tasks, such as collecting the rents, owning land, opening coal pits as well as her other business ventures makes her an oddity to the folk of Halifax and surrounding areas. As her sister Marian points out, Anne’s behaviour may be “all well and good being different in York or Paris, but this is Halifax; people talk, and it isn’t always very nice.”
Anne had inherited a moderate agricultural estate, along with property in Halifax and shares in various industries from her uncle, James Lister upon his death. Although she drew a modest income from the estate and managed it until her aunt Anne’s death in 1836, her finances were somewhat limited. So, she returns to Halifax to set her goals of finding a local wealthy woman to love, marry, and settle down with.
Though Anne was hesitant about meeting Ann Walker (recalling her previous meeting with Ann and her sister Elizabeth following the death of their parents), Anne appeared rather smitten with Ms. Walker, and although she set out to romance Ann and convince her that they should settle down together, Miss Walker, despite her mental fragility at times, was more than able to temper Anne’s impulsiveness. They balanced each other quite well.
Wainwright’s dramatising of Anne Lister’s diaries, picks up the nuances of Anne’s habits, such as writing down the timing and frequency of her sexual encounters in her diaries, her business practices, the weather, her family life, and what was happening socially and politically of where she was. Anne was an utter force of nature, and her strength of character and her overall positive mental health outlook shone through in every aspect of her character. She knows who she is and with whom she loves. Who she loves, she has known from a young age, are women – that is how God made her, and she is utterly unashamed of that, though she does note to her aunt that she was dealt a cruel trick to be this courageous and strong into a woman’s body, especially in a time where women in society were limited, socially, politically. Suranne Jones emanates these qualities in abundance in her portrayal of Anne Lister.
Many times the dialogue spoke to Lister’s confidence of who she was; she was very much aware of her ‘oddity’ status, but she owned that about herself. Though the social nature of today versus the Georgian period in which Anne Lister lived is quite different, the dialogue is as much relevant now as it was then. The inequality and egalitarianism on different scales is relatable. I also loved that she was very determined that she was never compelled to become a mother, yet another thing that separated her from most of society at that time – even now, women still get shamed for not wanting to have children.
Ann Walker was coming into her own, despite her mental health challenges through her life. She’d had a tragic life with her parents and some friends dying, her religious persecution fears, and the overbearing nature of some of her relatives to leach money from her estate. She grew more confident of herself when she was with Anne, drawing strength from her love. Anne’s interactions with her varying family members – her sister, Elizabeth, who became rather supportive of her younger sister’s relationship with Ms. Lister (how aware Elizabeth was about the sexual intimacy aspect of that relationship was I don’t know, but she certainly was aware that Ann loved Anne). The Priestley’s became quite aware of Ann and Anne’s relationship after Mrs. Priestly all but walked in on them in the sitting room kissing each other. At first, Eliza Priestly was all for the friendship until she realised the nature of it. Though I think Mr. Priestley was more ‘live and let live’ aspect of his cousin Ann’s relationship with Ms. Lister, a bit less concerned with the social mores than his wife. Ann’s cousin, Catherine Rawson, I believe it was, came to realize how much Anne cared for her cousin, taking care of Ann’s mental health needs. And she was forthcoming to Anne, apologising for thinking the worst of Anne (in possibly taking advantage of Ann’s wealth).
A major thing I love about the approach to the love story in Gentleman Jack is that unlike so many preceding stories featuring lesbians (or other WLW love stories), is that this is very obviously told without the ‘male gaze’ in mind. There is a beautiful intimacy that is soft and gentle, without the explicitness or gratuity that is often typical in some lesbian and bisexual female relationships in many shows or films. There’s an utter joy and respect shown to the characters and actors, in the writing and directing of the intimacy between Anne and her lovers, past and present. Touch is a wonderful act of intimacy, without it always being sexual or perceived as such. Vulnerability as well speaks volumes in intimacy between partners, allowing ones self to feel the emotion is so strong. That is shown very specifically in a number of occasions, specifically when Anne realises that she’s aware that Ann cannot commit to her then, that of the partners that Anne has had, Ann Walker came the closest to understanding Anne’s nature. Her breaking down at that point was heartbreaking. In addition, in the finale, after Ann tells her that she’d agree to marry Anne and mean it, Anne pleads for her love not to hurt her, because sometimes she’s not as strong as she seems.
Their marriage, in contrast to her tenant, John Sowden, is a much quieter affair, the two women privately exchanging rings then taking the sacrament together in church was beautiful and meaningful, highlighting the joy at their union. Their amusing bickering after leaving the church was just perfect and on point.
Anne’s family life is very rich. Although Wainwright took slight narrative liberties of having Anne’s father Jeremy present rather than her Uncle James, I think it worked well in this case. I adored Aunt Anne’s wonderful relationship with Anne. She had a wonderful acceptance of her niece’s differences and just wanted Anne to be happy with whomever she loved and settled down. Aunt Anne adored Anne’s eccentricities and zest for life, her ability to take on life and explore. And she had the ability to reassure and support Anne when she was hurting. Anne’s care of her aunt’s health was just as wonderful; there was such a strong bond between them. I also loved the relationship between Anne and her sister Marian. The dynamic was just perfect. Marian had such wonderful long-suffering reactions to her sister: “It’s uncanny. However far away my sister goes, however long she’s gone for, whatever crisis is happening here, she always, within minutes, manages to inveigle herself into becoming the main topic of any given conversation. (*sigh*).” The meal-time conversations are hilariously done, with both Anne and Marian at times breaking the fourth wall with a look, a sigh, a smile or a roll of the eyes.
Onto other matters. Her servants and tenants. Anne was oft times ruthless when it came to her tenants in getting them to vote how she wished, as she could not vote as a woman (a specific gripe of hers as is revealed in the opening episode in a discussion between herself, her sister Marian, Aunt Anne, Ann Walker, and the Priestley’s about the upcoming Reformation Act.) She would also evict tenants who could no longer be useful on her land. She made it her business to be aware of things going on, such as the young boy who’s leg was amputated in an accident caused by Christopher Rawson – Anne made it a mission of hers throughout the series to try and find a way to make Rawson pay for injuring the child. She was also aware (to varying degrees) about Thomas Sowden and his uneasy relationship with his abusive father. Despite the circumstances of his father’s disappearance, which I’m sure Anne probably saw as suspicious, (especially as his and his mother’s stories told to Mr. Washington about the disappearance did not always match) but she agreed to let Thomas and his family to stay and work the land. Eugenie, the unfortunate young woman whom Anne chose as a lady’s maid, who barely spoke/understood English, and was pregnant by her now-deceased lover (also a servant of Anne’s), and became engaged to another servant, the affable Joseph Booth, under the guise of necessity – despite the two of them not speaking the same language (on more than one level). Rosie Cavaliero as Elisabeth Cordingly was brilliant both in her interactions with her fellow servants (acting as mediary between Joseph and Eugenie), and in interactions with Anne. Her exasperation at times was just priceless to watch.
Both Anne and Marian frequently broke the fourth wall, looking or speaking to the audience, and it worked quite effectively. Anne’s diaries were a reflection of her thoughts and feelings about life and the world around her, and in these instances those thoughts directed towards the audience gave us insight into that.
Anne’s business acumen and her knowledge is extensive in many areas; she was a well studied woman in matters of business, politics, social science, nature, anatomy. And what she didn’t know at the time, she sought to educate herself further, and seek guidance from other trusted sources as to things like sinking coal pits. She learned agricultural techniques and equipment so that she knew how her land was farmed, and she often would go work on the land with her tenants, mucking in to even the arduous work of pulling up trees, working on the stone walls.
Speaking of trees, stone walls and the like, the West Yorkshire landscape and Shibden Hall grounds (upon which quite a bit of the series is filmed) is a character unto itself. The rolling valleys, mixed with the early 1800s appearance of town give the series a brilliant backdrop to the drama going on around it.
The show has been well received on both sides of the Atlantic given the airing on HBO in the United States and BBC One in the United Kingdom, so much in fact that after the first airing in the UK, the show had been green-lit for a second series. Given that there is well over four million words written over her lifetime (starting at the age of 15 until a month before her death at the age of 49 in 1840), there is a lot of material to cover from 1834-1840. Anne took over full ownership of Shibden Hall in 1836 after the death of her Aunt Anne, and both Anne and Ann did a lot of travelling in their married life. I don’t know what period of time the second series will cover, but I suspect we can look forward to a lot more wonderful drama that we were treated to in the first series.
All images Copyright © 2019 Lookout Point Limited.
Music score for Gentleman Jack: Murray Gold.