So about five weeks ago, the British costume drama Gentleman Jack started showing on HBO in the United States. So far I have only watched the clips one YouTube user has posted that show snippets of the love story, ignoring Anne Lister’s entrepreneurial and political side, but holy mackerel, it’s good.
We know what we now know about Anne Lister because of her rather compulsive keeping of personal journals, the salacious bits in a code she constructed in her youth. Over the last century, different historians have decrypted and either shared or hidden those bits and their implications. I just read Angela Steidele’s Gentleman Jack: A Biography of Anne Lister, which draws heavily on the decrypted and transcribed bits of the diary. At over 4 million words, there’s a lot that still hasn’t been transcribed.
Sally Wainwright, the creator, writer and main director on the show spent twenty years working with the source material and finally found in 2019 the time was right for this story.
The show covers, in only eight episodes, roughly two years in the life of Anne Lister, and aristocrat who recognizes herself as what we would now consider a lesbian, even though the word had not appeared in the language yet. She considered herself clearly female (and lamented that fact when it stood in the way of her gaining an education or the vote), and said she loved “and only loved the fairer sex.” The show portrays her wooing a richer, younger, and less together, but equally gay aristocrat, with all the societal problems you might expect in the early 1830s of Halifax, England. (As opposed to when she was studying anatomy in Paris a few years earlier…)
We’re only five weeks in on an eight week “season” (or the British word, series), but already the show is kind of amazing.