“Gentleman Jack” Breathes New Life into the Period Genre
If there’s one thing that the British entertainment industry seems to love, it’s period pieces. From “Downton Abbey” to “Harlots,” “The Crown” to “Call the Midwife,” the Brits have a strong sense of nostalgia about the past. British and other Anglo viewers alike seem particularly entranced by the Victorian era: the time of corsets and petticoats, Jack the Ripper, manservants, and a British Empire still in the ascendant. Shows set in this era tend to focus on the foibles of the upper class, romanticizing their lives to provide viewers an opulent, vicarious experience of life at the top of the food chain. The rich gowns, impeccably furnished manors, and leisurely lives represent a lifestyle that viewers can only imagine. But how many iterations of “Pride and Prejudice” can there really be (there are at least ten set in the right era) before viewers get bored? The more content produced set in the 1800s, the harder it is to find new, untrod material.
That’s what makes “Gentleman Jack” so impressive: it takes a well-known setting, with archetypical, almost stereotypical, characters, and tells an utterly unique story. What’s even more remarkable is that it’s not a fictional story. It’s history. Anne Lister, the protagonist of “Gentleman Jack,” was a real person, and the TV show hews relatively closely to her actual life (it’s based on 27 volumes of diaries that she wrote detailing her life, including romantic trysts with women that she wrote in code). The show is set in the latter period of her life when, tired of seeing her female paramours marry men to avoid the social stigma of “spinsterhood” and to fulfill societal expectations about marriage and motherhood, Lister decides to find a woman with whom to settle down who won’t abandon her for a more socially acceptable male partner. Like a male character out of a Jane Austen novel, she sets her sights on a local heiress with a reputation for being of feeble mind and body. What better a match for her, she reasons, than a single woman of great independent means? After all, it’s what she would seek if she had been born a man. Thus begins her wooing of Miss Ann Walker of Yorkshire.
At a time when women were often carefully supervised and controlled, when they didn’t know that same-sex female relationships were even possible, it’s astonishing that Lister managed to bed as many women over the course of her lifetime as she did. And little seems more impossible than her pursuit of Walker. What were the odds that the heiress next door would not only be something less than heterosexual, but that she would be willing to become the “wife” of another woman at a time when men were still publicly hanged for sodomy? And yet it’s no great spoiler to say that Walker did respond to Lister’s advances. The relationship between them forms both the heart and the central conflict in “Gentleman Jack”: how will two women living in a man’s world possibly overcome all obstacles to be together? The chemistry between Suranne Jones (Lister) and Sophie Rundle (Walker) is spot on. As a couple, Lister and Walker are captivating and dynamic, full of empathy and longing. Move over, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, the lesbian community has Anne Lister and Ann Walker!
Famous female protagonists from the literature of the Victorian era seem to fall into predictable patterns. Austen’s protagonists, for example, are mostly plucky, clever heroines making their way through constricting social norms and marital expectations. Emily Bronte’s Jane Eyre is similarly intelligent and independent. But they still act in ways that, while perhaps “quirky” for the time, were not altogether scandalous. Lister, on the other hand, who comes from the earlier Georgian era, while intelligent, is nothing like them. She’s a maelstrom: she marches into rooms, issues imperious demands, challenges the world to treat her as an equal to men, and unapologetically runs the affairs of Shibden Hall as its proprietor. She’s not plucky, she’s competent…and softly butch, with a hobby of flirting with ladies. While anyone else would have been socially ostracized and shunned in the face of even a hint of sexual impropriety, she manages (on the show, at least) to sidestep rampant gossip about her lesbianism through her charisma. Altogether, as a character, Lister is a wonderful queer hero. She’s the brash, assertive, take no prisoners beguiler we didn’t know we needed. Jones does a wonderful job bringing Lister to life, and the ebullient energy with which she imbues Lister is contagious. When she winks at the camera and flashes her winning smile, she ensures we’re all in on the joke together.
Walker, on the other hand, is like a fictional character from the Georgian era: she has a nervous temperament and bouts of hysteria. Her relatives believe she’s so sickly that she must be protected and kept apart from the world, a judgment that she both accepts and plays into. She’s like a chipped piece of china: beautiful, delicate, and slightly broken. She’s Lister’s polar opposite, and that’s part of why she’s so drawn to Lister: while she sees herself as parochial and sheltered, Lister is worldly and adventurous. Together they’re like night and day, and the dynamic works beautifully. Kudos absolutely must be given to Rundle, who has called the role the hardest work of her career, and rightly so. She does an exceptional job of creating a vulnerable, insecure woman trying to find the bravery within herself to follow her heart. Although TV awards have typically not favored roles like hers to win, she does an absolutely outstanding job and she deserves to be recognized for it.
As to the rest of the show, the secondary characters play into typical archetypes: the gossiping relatives, the aged father, the helpful but jaded servants, and even the evil banker, who necessarily must embody the corrosive effect of capitalist greed. The manors and farms, too, will seem familiar to viewers who have watched other shows set in the 1800s. The only thing—apart from the queer content, of course—that doesn’t fit the usual format for the historical genre is the repeated breaking of the fourth wall by Lister (and once or twice by her sister Marian). It’s an unexpected artistic choice that is a nod to the original source material. Just as readers of Lister’s journals are privy to her inner thoughts, viewers, too, are occasionally let into her plans and intentions through direct address.
The last few years have shown a notable uptick in the quality of queer characters on Anglo TV, concomitant with the increase in diverse storytelling. One of the great benefits of this opening of TV to more minority representation is that we see three-dimensional, complex queer main characters in all but previously unseen scenarios. Queer women in 1800s England is one of these. True, queer women were at the heart of the BBC’s 2002 miniseries adaptation of “Tipping the Velvet” (set in the 1890s), but “Gentleman Jack” from the first episode vastly exceeds it in complexity and depth of characters. And it promises more. After eight episodes of season one, another eight episodes of season two have already been commissioned, which promises to tell more of the story of Anne and Ann. As with the groundbreaking BBC show “Killing Eve,” one wonders how such an exciting, unexpected first season can possibly be matched by the second, but writer/director Sally Wainwright (also the writer of “Last Tango in Halifax”) is known for the quality of her work, and “Gentleman Jack” has been a pet project of hers for well over a decade. Whatever happens next season, it is sure to be full of adventure and humor.