Aline Dolinh is Bitch Media’s 2019 Writing Fellow in Pop-Culture Criticism
“Nature played a challenging trick on me, didn’t she—putting a bold spirit like mine in this vessel, in which I’m obliged to wear frills and petticoats? Well, I refuse to be cowed by it,” vows Anne Lister (Suranne Jones), the eponymous heroine of HBO’s new historical drama series Gentleman Jack. Those lines could serve as a thesis statement for the show as a whole: Created by Sally Wainwright, it’s based on the prolific diaries of the real-life Lister, a wealthy 19th-century landowner later christened as “the first modern lesbian” for her self-professed identity as a woman who “love[s] and only love[s] the fairer sex,” whose “heart revolts from any other love than theirs.”
Jones’s Lister is a magnetic, swashbuckling charmer who romps across 1832 Halifax in sharply tailored all-black outfits and possesses an irresistibly romantic backstory—she studied human anatomy in Paris, learned how to swordfight from a brother who died young, and has returned to her family home of Shibden Hall freshly heartbroken after her previous lover accepted a man’s marriage proposal. She soon sets her sights on Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle), a demure heiress whose appeal to Lister initially seems grounded in mercenary as well as sentimental desires: In Gentleman Jack’s first episode, Lister confidently tells the audience in voiceover, “Though she’ll scarcely understand it herself, I can see that the poor girl already seems thoroughly in love with me, and what she lacks in rank she certainly makes up for in fortune.”
Perhaps predictably, Lister’s rakish intentions eventually give way to genuine devotion as she finds herself falling for Walker. Their courtship escalates in tender yet electrifying gestures, the camera reveling in the movement of Lister’s hand carefully tracing Walker’s jawline or caressing her cheek as they move into a kiss. It’s a depiction of lesbian desire that feels exceptionally gratifying because of its investment in emphasizing the women’s mutual pleasure and palpable longing for each other, rather than catering to an imagined male viewer.
In recent years, films like Carol, The Handmaiden, and Colette have invigorated the subgenre of the lesbian period drama, winning acclaim for their focus on the potent emotional and sexual lives of women during eras that demanded their desires be kept secret. (The upcoming biopics Vita and Virginia and Ammonite suggest that this narrative remains a reliable angle.) Gentleman Jack’s fusion of female homoeroticism and historical dramedy has also, inevitably, drawn comparisons to 2018’s critically lauded The Favourite, whose based-on-real-events plot revolves around Great Britain’s Queen Anne and her affairs with women. But while The Favourite was an often absurdist look at the poisonous entanglements of love and control at the center of a cutthroat royal court, Gentleman Jack is a fundamentally less cynical story. Its stakes feel more modest and tenderly drawn; its drama unfolds amidst the comparatively provincial setting of 19th-century Britain’s striving bourgeoisie.
In its sheer sincerity, Gentleman Jack seems more closely related to the recent Wild Nights with Emily, a biographical comedy about Emily Dickinson (Molly Shannon) that demolishes the eponymous poet’s reputation as a gloomy recluse in favor of portraying her as a blithe romantic heroine who unabashedly loved women. It also bears a resemblance to the criminally underappreciated Love and Friendship, Whit Stillman’s adaptation of the lesser-known Jane Austen novel Lady Susan. The story itself isn’t explicitly queer, but its quippy-yet-earnest treatment of female relationships and social ambition within the English upper class make it a worthy spiritual companion.
And while Gentleman Jack is unquestionably fun, it doesn’t set out to be an unconditional empowerment fantasy. Lister is wealthy, charming, and often the most competent individual within any room she strides into; and yet these attributes still cannot protect her from the pervasive violence of homophobia. She declares that “banality and mediocrity are the only things that ever really frighten [her],” but is still subject to the whims of people who are considerably less brilliant but more powerful than herself. Her relationship with Walker takes on increasingly material consequences as the season continues. Their aspiration to live as a married couple is constantly shadowed by the threat of social ostracism and even capital punishment, and Lister herself is physical assaulted because of it while walking home alone.
Likewise, Walker is much more than a saintly romantic interest who is suddenly self-actualized by love. Her shyness ultimately reveals both a hidden resolve as well as a history of surviving sexual assault that has ongoing consequences for her ability to see herself as worthy of happiness. Unlike another HBO show in which women’s struggles to gain autonomy within a violently patriarchal world are a recurring theme, Gentleman Jack doesn’t use Walker’s trauma as a cheap drama-inducing tactic to level her up into a Strong Female Character without doing the emotional work.
The show’s characterization of Walker feels particularly refreshing—though not entirely unsurprising, as Wainwright herself has extensive experience with crafting complicated, often difficult TV heroines who are neither icons of empowerment nor irredeemable sinners. Wainwright previously collaborated with Jones on Unforgiven, a three-part drama centered on a woman found guilty of murdering two police officers as a teenager. Her recent work on series such as Scott and Bailey (also costarring Jones) and Happy Valley has focused on strong-willed, competent English policewomen with dysfunctional personal lives. Her narrative understanding of Walker’s abuse displays a similar sympathy, as it shows the indelible (and at times self-destructive) way the experience has an ongoing effect on her mental health and capacity to commit to a loving relationship with Lister, even as the latter becomes a source of genuine comfort and joy.
When Lister eventually encounters Thomas Ainsworth (Brendan Patricks), the man who preyed on Walker and now seeks to marry her, he turns out to be a dull, weak-willed clergyman rather than a conniving supervillain. Though their encounter is bloodless and leaves his reputation intact, it feels like an evisceration when Lister coldly tells him, “If you weren’t so insignificant, Mr. Ainsworth, I would horse-whip you until you were black and blue. As it is, I’m mortally sorry you are not worth knocking down.” It’s a moment that is satisfying precisely because its justice feels achievable within a world so familiar to our own—one in which female suffering under patriarchy is often the result of pathetic and unexceptional acts of male cruelty, rather than meaningful and inherently character-building experiences.
Watching Gentleman Jack often brings to mind the historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s widely misinterpreted quote that “Well-behaved women seldom make history”—a phrase that was intended to illuminate the historical significance of “ordinary” women’s domestic labor, not simply to valorize those who explicitly flouted social conventions. Gentleman Jack doesn’t let its audience forget the risks of being a visibly “unbehaved” woman in 19th-century England. Though Lister was undoubtedly extraordinary, Wainwright’s writing also deftly explores how she sought to rationalize her identity within the context of her own time.
For instance, Lister’s claims that she was “born like this”—that her lesbianism is an intrinsic part of her “God-given nature” that would be itself “unnatural” to contradict by loving a man—establish that she sees no tension between her love of women and her Anglican faith. In response to Walker’s fear that they could be put to death (sodomy was then a capital felony), Lister appeals to a strict understanding of the law rather than the more progressive rhetoric of universal civil rights, assuring her that their relationship is justifiable on the grounds that “What men do is completely different to what we do […] Between men, it’s illegal, it’s a criminal act. Between women, it isn’t.” She recognizes that the stability of her position owes less to liberal tolerance than it does to men regarding sexual desire between women as something so ridiculous and incomprehensible that it could never possibly constitute a threat to patriarchal power.
Moreover, Lister is also a wealthy landed woman and aspiring coal entrepreneur at the series’ outset—attributes that cannot totally insulate her from social disapproval, but which make her unconventional lifestyle much easier to sustain. Instead of making her a one-dimensionally righteous #girlboss, Gentleman Jack considers how Lister’s hard-nosed business acumen is also capable of making her callous. She is an unapologetic capitalist who has little interest in identifying with her tenants’ struggles. When an indebted renter spitefully tells her that one day tenants will throw landlords off land, she coolly responds, “When the time comes, us landlords must make sure we give as much as we get.” She complains that she deserves the right to vote as an extensive property owner, not because of her inherent humanity as a woman.
In fact, it’s Lister’s unassuming, more conventionally feminine sister Marian (Gemma Whelan)—a character who might have been a one-note killjoy in a lesser series—who actually harbors greater sympathies for the working class. Marian warns Anne that the English government “risks revolution” if it refuses to enfranchise the common people, and scolds her for keeping their servants up late while they await her return from her midnight trysts. Yet she also supports Anne’s hope that Walker will move into Shibden Hall. In its characterizations of these women, Gentleman Jack gracefully sidesteps the anachronistic cliché of “I’m not like other girls!”-esque exceptionalism in order to render Lister herself a vivid and sympathetic character. The series’ warm and multidimensional treatment of its heroines is its guiding strength.
Lister recognizes that the stability of her position owes less to liberal tolerance than it does to men regarding sexual desire between women as something so ridiculous that it could never possibly constitute a threat to patriarchal power.
To some degree, Gentleman Jack’s biographical source material offers the insurance of a built-in happy ending, resisting the myth that queer women’s lives are inherently bound to trajectories of suffering and tragedy. (At least on television, dead queer female characters still vastly outnumber their living counterparts.) Before watching, I made a quick Google detour to ensure as much—I wanted to be absolutely secure in my trust that none of these women would unceremoniously catch tuberculosis or a stray bullet before I became too invested in them.
But in focusing on the fledgling stages of Lister and Walker’s courtship, Gentleman Jack urges us to consider these lives at their most vibrant, funny, and unmistakably human, translated into the dramatic language of a heartfelt adventure rather than a retrospective tragedy. “Have you done this before?” Walker asks at one point, in the middle of a passionate discussion about their relationship. “Of course not,” Lister responds, looking directly into the camera with a knowing, Fleabag-esque glance, to the other woman’s extreme confusion.
Gentleman Jack was recently renewed for a second season, so it seems inevitable that it will continue to expand its narrative ambitions going forward. While the relationship between Lister and Walker is unquestionably the series’ beating heart, it remains to be seen whether their romance will stabilize into a settled domestic partnership or can only survive as a clandestine push and pull (a question that Killing Eve, another series focused on the growing attraction between two dissimilar women—albeit in a much more destructive dynamic—has also had to contend with). It might be naive to wish for Lister and Walker to get an unconditional happily-ever-after, I’m convinced that Wainwright’s idiosyncratic understanding of these characters will make their journey feel worthwhile no matter where it ends up.
After all, for all her debonair self-assurance, Lister is still capable of profound awkwardness. In one attempt at flirting, she delivers a dazzling, fervent monologue about the wonders of the human brain before mentioning that she once dissected a baby’s corpse in Paris. It’s these moments that establish Lister’s wondrous dimensions—disciplined yet passionate, brazen yet vulnerable, charismatic yet fallible in the face of desire—and make Gentleman Jack a truly singular portrait of a woman in love.