Anne Lister (1791-1840) is an unlikely subject for a television series, particularly one as successful as Sally Wainwright’s Gentleman Jack (2019). Lister’s remarkably frank diaries, written partly in her own private code, record her sexual and romantic relationships with numerous other women, as well as her activities as a businesswoman, landowner, traveller and aspiring writer. The sheer volume of the diaries – over 4 million words, most of them still unpublished – resists narrative shaping. James Kent’s 2010 film The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister telescoped twenty years of Lister’s life and relationships into 90 minutes; Wainwright’s 8-part series, set in 1832, focuses on Lister’s courtship of neighbouring Yorkshire heiress Ann Walker.
Broadcast in the BBC’s prime-time Sunday night costume drama slot and immediately recommissioned for a second series, Gentleman Jack prompted massively increased visitor numbers at Lister’s home, Shibden Hall, Halifax. It made stars of lesbian folk duo O’Hooley and Tidow, whose 2012 song “Gentleman Jack” provides the closing theme music. The 2020 Anne Lister Birthday Weekend (sadly postponed because of COVID-19) reportedly sold out faster than Glastonbury. Gentleman Jack’s extensive fanbase produced numerous volunteers for the West Yorkshire Archive Service’s diary transcription project, promoted by Sally Wainwright on Twitter (#AnneListerCodeBreaker). On the microblogging site Tumblr, posts in the Gentleman Jack tag include not only fanworks (fiction, art, gifsets, videos) but also discussions of the transcription process, and shared advice about Lister’s code and additional symbols.
Gentleman Jack offers the viewer many pleasures, starting with Suranne Jones’s swashbuckling, flirtatious, fourth-wall-breaking central performance, complete with power-walking, Ladies of Llangollen-style riding-habit, silver-topped cane and dashing but inauthentic top hat. (The blazon-like opening credits sequence, constructing Lister’s appearance for the public gaze, is a particular pleasure.) Jones is well matched by Sophie Rundle’s fragile but determined Ann Walker, and by Gemma Jones, Timothy West and Gemma Whelan as Lister’s baffled and long-suffering family. Much of the series was filmed at Shibden (the show’s originally commissioned title was Shibden Hall), and there’s something surprisingly moving about seeing the characters move through those familiar spaces. Writing with characteristic warmth and humour, Wainwright locates Lister in a complex network of relationships with her family, servants, tenants, and local business rivals.
This broader exploration, combined with the tight chronological scope and focus on Lister’s courtship of Ann Walker, reinforces the show’s sense of Lister as “a singular woman”, in Suranne Jones’s phrase. There’s an irony to that description, since in the coded language of the time “singular” can mean queer. The historical Lister’s uniqueness is not her desires for other women or even the fact that she acts on them, but that she leaves a record in a way that others don’t, including some of the other women she mentions in her diaries. My persistent regret about the series is that we don’t see more of the range of Lister’s relationships with women, including friendship and the recognition of models and likeness: there is nobody like Lister in the world of Gentleman Jack. The “blue and masculine” Miss Pickford and the Ladies of Llangollen may lie outside the show’s chronological scope, but Lister’s complicated relationship with Isabella “Tib” Norcliffe (not seen here) continues during this period; it’s as if there is a limit to how many butches the narrative can accommodate. Not all of the women Lister had to do with were sexual partners, love-interests or enemies, and there is very little here about the importance of women’s friendship outside sexual and romantic frameworks. The show makes room, valuably, for many other things apart from romantic relationships, but not for that.
Making Lister singular, this singular, makes her fit more easily into Gentleman Jack’s romantic narrative and the drive towards a quasi-marital happy ending, complete with hilltop proposal and swirling music. Though the show acknowledges her initial financial motives for “mak[ing] up to Miss Walker”, it’s hard to hold on to that knowledge when Lister is in despair, howling at the prospect of losing her coal-mines and Shibden itself, which she has rashly mortgaged. Lister has increasingly been presented as the only one who truly cares for and understands Walker (unlike Walker’s abusive and mercenary family). The show’s arc makes Lister the cure as well as the romantic partner for the mentally fragile Walker, who finds her strength in rescuing Lister. In doing so, it asks viewers not to think too closely about the incidental success of Lister’s original plan to prop up Shibden with Miss Walker’s inheritance.
Lesbian happy endings are hard to find in mainstream media, even two decades into the twenty-first century, and the forms they’re allowed to take are limited. In one sense it’s still extraordinary to have the series ending with that hilltop proposal, followed by the two women’s private-yet-public commitment to each other. Filmed in Holy Trinity church in Goodramgate, York, where a rainbow plaque now commemorates Lister and Walker’s union, the commitment scene is intercut with a very public celebration of cisheterosexual marriage between one of Lister’s tenants, Thomas Sowden, and Suzannah Washington, the daughter of Lister’s man of business. These two versions of marriage and the relationships they celebrate are not valued equally, the show suggests, and they should be: love is love, after all. It seems churlish to say that I want a version of history where queer central characters are allowed not to be read through an assimilationist lens, though I do. It took Sally Wainwright twenty years to be able to make the drama she wanted to make about Anne Lister. A queerer version of Lister’s story certainly wouldn’t be a mainstream hit on the scale of Gentleman Jack, if it ever got made at all. In later years, Walker and Lister’s relationship seems to have become increasingly sexless (numerous diary entries beginning “No kiss”) and often strained. How far Gentleman Jack will go with that story, and how it will be received, remains to be seen; filming for the recommissioned series, postponed because of COVID-19, is due to start at Shibden later this year.