Gentleman Jack Is All That

Some have argued that channel surfing is dead, much like doorbells since many of us simply text “here” once we arrive. While the latter development is yet another casualty of technology marching on and our collective avoidance of unexpected visitors, television has become a serious art form–one that captivates and absorbs our imaginations, conversations, and connections to one another. Much like the Bible was, perhaps still is, the common text for art and literature, television and film are common ground for many Americans today.

Part of the reason channel surfing is dead, The Economist argues, is due to what academics call the second, or arguably the third if you count the 1980s, Golden Age of Television, which began in the late 1990s and early 2000s with immersive, dynamic storytelling and cinematography with television series such as The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Breaking Bad, among others. This period of “peak TV” is due to a number of factors, one of which is our access to streaming services which offer a cornucopia of content.

While there are, of course, still many television series which fall short of the divine, our ability to formulate what we value and appreciate on our many-screened devices has allowed for abundant viewing pleasures. We can, quite often, avoid that which displeases us through behavioral algorithms and “taste groups.” You can filter for series with witty buddies or strong female leads. The possibilities are both endless and clearly defined.

One such program that should join the ranks of this golden era of television is HBO’s Gentleman Jack, which debuted on April 22 for HBO and May 19 for BBC One. The 2019 season of the eight-episode Regency drama is based on the four-million-word journals of the very real landowner and queer British trailblazer Anne Lister. In 2011, Lister’s diaries were included in the United Nations’ UNESCO Memory of the World register, an online archive of historic UK documents. Helena Whitbread, Anne’s biographer, said of the inclusion of Lister’s diaries: “They are a national treasure of international renown.”  

In fact, Lister is often dubbed the “the first modern lesbian,” a scholar, and a businesswoman who led a remarkable life, including taking a wife in Ann Walker, a neighboring heiress who had money and gentility in spades. While Lister and Walker’s union would not be recognized legally or otherwise when they took the sacrament at Holy Trinity Church in late March 1834, their coupling is acknowledged as the first lesbian marriage to be held in Britain.

The first season of the show introduces us to Anne, played with grace and wit by Suranne Jones, as she returns to Halifax from her adventures abroad to recover from a traumatic breakup with yet another lover who left Anne’s embrace for a “respectable” husband and to take up the mantle of “manly” duties her older or less inclined family have not done in her absence: collecting rent from tenants, preparing to sink a coal shaft on the Shibden Hall property, and confronting the town’s bully, coal thief, and magistrate, Christopher Rawson, portrayed by the smarmy wickedness of Vincent Franklin.

Shibden Hall, where the based-on-a-true-story series is filmed, inspired television writer and executive producer, Sally Wainwright, who also grew up near Lister’s historic house in the 1970s, to explore what she did not know about the legendary life of Anne Lister. What Wainwright discovered in her research for Gentleman Jack is a complicated and compelling portrait of a woman who defied stifling conventions, yet who was also very much a “bright blue Tory” who gave little thought or care to women receiving the right to vote.

As Wainwright told Vanity Fair in late April:

“There are aspects of her character that are hard to love,” Wainwright observed. “Some people are going to be totally disappointed, because she’s not a feminist heroine, by any means. She believed in her own interests, not women’s.”

What is so intoxicating about the new series is that it melds history, humor, everyday examinations of how gender and class influence or diminish one’s life, and makes visible the seduction, lust, and love among Victorian women. The show also has the power to beguile audiences in an unlikely setting, 1832 in West Yorkshire, England during the Industrial Revolution.

There is great redemption in bringing this embroidered historical tale to our many-screened devices: The series shows us there were, of course, compelling lives being led centuries before us that many still know nothing about. By the prudent decision of the last inhabitant of Shibden Hall, John Lister, to not burn his relative’s diaries, Anne Lister’s words show the rest of the world how one woman chose to thrive in a bigoted society–a culture she did not ask permission in which to exist and flourish.