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Finding the Real Gentleman Jack

Can the show capture the daring—and the difficulties—of a lesbian businesswoman’s life in Victorian England?


In July of 2018, a small ceremony was held outside of Holy Trinity Church, a small, squat, stone building in York, England, that dates back to the 12th Century. The ceremony was to unveil a blue plaque, with rainbow edges (the first of its kind in the UK), celebrating a “gender non-conforming entrepreneur” who had done something notable in that place. The entrepreneur was Anne Lister, a woman who lived, for much of her life, in nearby Shibden Hall, a grand Yorkshire estate that she inherited in the early 1800s following the death of her aunt. Lister was not just a landowner—she was also an adventuress, an intrepid traveler who made her way through Europe and Asia, keeping a four-million word diary in which she described her journeys in intense and intricate detail. She was also a lesbian, more or less openly—or at least as openly as a person could be in a conservative agrarian community in the 1830s.

Her plaque ended up outside Holy Trinity because that was where, on Easter Sunday 1834, she took communion with her then-lover, the wealthy heiress Ann Walker, and the two considered themselves to be wed in the eyes of God. The church now heralds this date as the one of the first marriage rites performed for two women in love, though at the time this was not the language any clergy would have used. Lister and Walker had to more or less hide their nuptials from others and refer to themselves as mere “close companions” as they travelled together and cohabitated at Shibden Hall. What a difference two centuries can make.

The plaque at Holy Trinity was just a small part of a broad surge of interest in the dapper woman whom scholars have taken to calling one of “the first modern lesbians” in England; call it Listermania. The revival has been a long time coming. It began in 1983, when a Helena Whitbred, a historian in Halifax, was looking for a research project to sink her teeth into near her hometown. She had heard legends about Lister, but there was little documentation; still, she decided to poke around. She began to look into the Calderdale Archives, hoping to find a few letters by or about Lister; what she discovered instead was a treasure trove. She found Lister’s extensive, scandalous diary, which at the time was written in a hieroglyphics-esque code in order to disguise her breathless prose about her Sapphic activities. Whitbred spent years cracking and unscrambling the code, and then published three collections of Lister’s private writing, beginning with I Know My Own Heart, in 1988.

Whitbred’s scholarship opened the door to a whole new vein of lesbian history. The diaries were written with such precision, and such unabashed erotic prose, that they filled in decades-long gaps in historians’ understanding of queer life in England at the time. Biographies began to accrue. In 1998, the historian Jill Liddington published Female Fortune, a book about women landlords that centered on Lister. Liddington’s book landed in the hands of the screenwriter and showrunner Sally Wainwright, best known for creating the detective procedural Scott & Bailey and the family saga Last Tango in Halifax in the UK, and the Netflix crime procedural, Happy Valley, in the United States. Wainwright became instantly possessed by Lister’s life, her swagger, her Don Juan-like seductions of society women around the world. Hailing from Yorkshire herself, and having visted Shibden Hall regularly as a child, Wainwright felt that Lister’s story was one she was destined to tell.

Lister was a perfect television heroine: brash, cocksure, rebellious, dressed in dandy black dresses that looked almost like men’s suits. “She was very charismatic in real life,” Wainwright recently told the New York Times about Lister’s appeal. “It’s clear from the journal that people liked being with her and that she always had plenty to say. Women probably did like her hugely because she gave them a sense of their own worth somehow—that women could be like this. They didn’t have to be these little bits of decoration.”

Wainwright plunged herself into Lister’s life story—not only did she decide to write a new television series about her, but she also funded a digitization of Lister’s diaries, which will go public online this spring. She also wrote the foreword for a new Lister biography, Gentleman Jack, by Anne Choma, that comes out on April 30. In recent years, she has tied herself to Lister’s life with the kind of zeal normally reserved for biographers tucked into the dusty corner of a library, except in Wainwright’s case, she had a splashier plan for getting Lister’s life in front of the public. She went to the BBC, then to HBO.

The result is a glossy new co-production between the two networks, also called Gentleman Jack (Lister’s nickname among the Halifax locals) starring the actress Suranne Jones. Jones brings a broad-shouldered robustness to Lister’s physicality; she doesn’t just walk through town, she bounds, she trots, she stomps. She often wears an ascot and a men’s dress shirt, paired with a velveteen vest, a pocket watch, a tailored duster coat, and a sleek top hat. She looks like the kind of woman who knows her way around a haberdasher, who has custom cufflinks made. From the earliest moments of the series, which show Lister barreling back into her family’s estate after an ill-fated beach sojourn with a lover who spurned her (she decided to marry a man), Jones speaks certain lines directly to camera, a fourth-wall shattering that continues throughout the eight episodes.

In an interview, Wainwright said that this choice was meant to mirror Lister’s obsessive diary writing; in this instance, the viewer is a stand-in for her private journal. What it really does, however, is subtly tie the show to Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, another BBC show about a tall, angular, jaunty woman who speaks in soliloquy, albeit in the modern day. This television interruptus technique doesn’t feel like a gimmick on Fleabag, which is a show all about spiraling down the drain of a single woman’s messy interior life, but it does feel a bit forced in the context of the period piece. It seems to grow out of an aggressive need to make Lister cheeky, smarter than the audience. It almost seems to want to make her a millennial.

Lister has inherited Shibden, and the groom who normally collects the rents is indisposed. She becomes the new landlord, and in going around to various tenants, finds in herself a new ruthlessness and thrill for business negotiations (much of Lister’s real diary entries are about monetary transactions and entrepreneurial gains; she may or may not be the “first modern lesbian,” but she was definitely a modern capitalist). She also meets Ann Walker, a perennially bored, lonesome blond with a truly ludicrous inheritance who has come to rent property on her estate. By the end of the pilot, Lister’s seduction of Walker is already well underway. She also learns, early on, that her land is rich in coal, a resource that is growing in value as England turns towards industrialization. She schemes up a mining operation with a go-getter farmer at Shibden, and starts to find ways to turn her land into profits.

Given the lurid, heart-palpitating details of Lister’s diaries, one might think that Gentleman Jack would be a steamy show when it comes to women in the bedroom. But the most heat in the show is generated by Lister’s financial dealings; she often seems to get more pleasure out of milking the soil for black gold than she does snogging a fling in the stables. If anything, I saw less “Tipping the Velvet” in Gentleman Jack than I saw an echo of Mad Men; Jones’s Lister is a genius for business, and a bonafide Casanova with the ladies—but she herself feels cold, detached, moving through molasses. Even as we see her wail, early on, as one of her many lovers dumps her and leaves her behind, we only see this outburst in flashback. In the present world of the show, Lister is measured, unflappable. She knows exactly what she wants and she goes after it. This makes her a heroine, sure. But she also lacks tension or vulnerability.

The joy and also challenge of period pieces are that they must take the past and sell it back to modern viewers. The past becomes a commodity, and when done well, it can feel like a confection. Take The Favourite, for example, which managed to turn the court of Queen Anne into a contemporary pop song of a film, full of dirty jokes and clever turns. Or even The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which has succeeded by offering up sumptuous, million-dollar glimpses into a pink and pistachio New York that may have never existed. But period pieces, especially those about domestic lives, can also easily tip into dustiness or maudlin melodrama. A lot of people enjoy period work simply for the costumes and bucolic set dressings; but we also live in a time when entertainment is often trying to do a lot more than simply look pretty. And Gentleman Jack, while beautiful to gaze at, is a show with an agenda: It wants to tell a queer story, in a time more open and receptive to queer stories.

It succeeds in this—Jones’s characterization is memorable and debonair—but it also does so perhaps a bit too easily. The real Lister led neither a plucky nor a placid existence. She was a tortured woman, raging against society’s conventions even as she gleefully rebuked them. Her diaries are often screeds, full of thwarted romance and the feeling that she will never find a place in the world where she can be totally herself. Wainwright’s show, as respectful as it is to Lister, lacks a bit of this bite. It allows Jones to be the star, to step fully into frame, to speak with ultimate authority to the camera. But where Lister had to retreat to her diary, the one place where she can feel safe, Gentleman Jack, gives Lister a marquee, and a forum in which she is undeniably the smartest person in any room, and it runs the risk of making her look smug.

Listermania won’t abate—new biographies are coming, as well as those digitized diaries—but I hope the conversation around her life will continue to grow more nuanced as more people discover her. She lived a dangerous and costly life. She died on a journey through Russia of a fever, at only 49 years old. Her wife, Ann Walker, ended up in an insane asylum. Women who loved other women in her time often sacrificed more than they gained to live authentically, and Lister was no exception. The show makes her out to be unshakable. But I would like to see her wobble.