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‘Gentleman Jack’ Is The Lesbian Period Piece We’ve Been Waiting For

If your general idea of period pieces is that they’re stuffy and extremely boring, you’re not entirely wrong. After all, the majority of movies and mini-series focusing on bygone eras tend to lack the excitement and adventure of other genres, instead opting for morose drama, bleary landscapes, and a lot of smoke but not much fire. Gentleman Jack, the new HBO series based on the life of 19th century English landowner, diarist, and ardent lesbian Anne Lister, aims to change all that—and it’s about damn time.

Bringing Lister’s story to television has been a battle waged over nearly two decades, with writer, director, producer, and creator Sally Wainwright first having pitched the idea back in 2000 after discovering and becoming fascinated by (and somewhat obsessed with, she’d be happy to admit) Lister’s prolific journals. The fact that it took until 2019 to see this story adapted and played out on our screens is somewhat disappointing but also somewhat serendipitous, especially when considering that had it been immediately given the green light after that first pitch, we wouldn’t have the immense pleasure of seeing Suranne Jones in the starring role.

Jones has a long history on TV in her native UK, as well as a history with Wainwright herself—the two previously worked together on mini-series Unforgiven as well as the long-running crime drama Scott & Bailey—and their familiarity with one another’s approach to their respective work has lent to some of the finest work either has ever produced in Gentleman Jack. Of course, given the subject matter, it’d be hard not to feel inspired bringing such a unique, passionate, and fun story to life.

Anne is a character who is larger than life. Brash, no-nonsense, and at times abrupt, she is presented on-screen as a woman on a mission. A landowner in a time when women couldn’t even vote, she takes it upon herself to go around collecting all the rent payments her tenants have fallen behind on or simply neglected to pay. Such forthrightness in the early- to mid-19th century from a woman was almost unheard of, but this does nothing to deter her from taking care of business, so to speak.

Of course, Anne’s devil-may-care attitude is seen as part and parcel of a package that is somewhat strange overall. In Gentleman Jack, her proclivity for lady lovin’ is well-known around West Yorkshire and, it seems, around continental Europe and is seen as a defining and almost an endearing characteristic to all she encounters. This is largely because Anne herself is such a whirlwind of a character that it’s hard not to feel disarmed by her mere presence. She’s flirty, a bit sly, and very matter of fact. She’s firm but not unkind, and so quick-witted and whip-smart that it’s impossible not to feel simultaneously amused by and in awe of her.

This effervescent, impatient personality is one that Jones studied months to master, and it’s work that has certainly paid off. She’s mastered Anne’s slightly masculine gait, her hawkish nature—as well as, in more intimate moments with one of her lovers, her more vulnerable, side. In fact, it’s in the scenes in which Lister’s affections for the female form are the focus that both the character and the actress who plays her come the most vividly to life, and it’s damn entertaining to watch.

There have been plenty of lesbian storylines played out on both the big and small screen, many cartoonish and downright cringeworthy in their lack of reflection on the actual lesbian experience. Often these storylines are written by men and played out for the male gaze, and that’s where Gentleman Jack sets itself apart. Jones is not only a wonderfully empathetic and generous actress, but Wainwright’s treatment of her protagonist is so clearly full of admiration and respect that the resulting portrayal is nothing short of refreshing. Add in the fact that the events of the series are taking place in 1832 and suddenly Anne Lister’s story seems shamefully overdue.

It’s still early to tell where the remaining seven episodes of Gentleman Jack will lead the audience, and indeed Anne Lister, as she embarks on a journey to save her familial home at Shibden Hall and to win the affections of—and eventually make a wife of—the somewhat naive but undeniably beautiful Ann Walker. However, regardless of where this story ends up, one thing’s for sure: I’m certainly grateful that we’re seeing it at all.

Jennifer Still is a writer and editor from New York who cares too way much about fictional characters and spends her time writing about them.

Stream Gentleman Jack on HBO Go

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