tv review

Gentleman Jack Is a Modern Lesbian Tale Trapped in a 19th-Century World

Photo: HBO

Nineteenth-century period dramas have a reputation for slow stuffiness, but that reputation is not entirely earned: Series like the 2005 Andrew Davies Bleak House are edited to make Dickens feel snappy and rollicking (so much so that you wish Davies would calm down a little), and it’s easy to mistake the lovely soft-focus slowness of an adaptation like Sue Birtwistle’s Cranford for a gentle sweetness it does not possess. But especially when they’re about women, 19th-century stories are often, by necessity, about slow and circumscribed lives. The endless fretting about marriage prospects, the ticktock of a clock in an immobile drawing room — the pace can feel slow.

Parts of Gentleman Jack, HBO’s new period drama from Happy Valley creator Sally Wainwright, replicate that 19th-century pace. Things certainly happen, but there’s not that much plot in the total scheme of things. There are many circling discussions about the price of coal. Farmers lean over their pitchforks. Major story developments are destined to occur not tomorrow but maybe in a fortnight. But Gentleman Jack’s protagonist, Anne Lister, comes striding into that slow, staid pace at lightning speed, whipping around corners and launching herself over stone walls, her narrow black skirts rippling as she hurtles through the quiet world of pastoral 19th-century England. The world of the show may be genteel and steady, but Lister is not.

Gentleman Jack is based on the life of the real Anne Lister, sometimes described as the “first modern lesbian.” Lister’s legend has been preserved in her 4 million–word diaries, which detail her business relationships, her daily life, and her many love affairs with women. She was obviously not the first gay woman, but her diary is probably the earliest, most detailed historical record we have of a woman who extended her sexual identity beyond sexual acts — refusing to marry, refusing to dress in a feminine way, and refusing to conform to upper-class English social norms for the sake of ease or convenience.

In Gentleman Jack, Lister is played by Suranne Jones, who taps into beautifully variable, nuanced emotional registers. As Anne, she is strident and self-assured; she is heartsick, she is resolute, she is privately vulnerable. She is furious — transcendently angry that she’s stuck in a world that she does not fit and full of grief that her lovers so often cave to propriety rather than finding the courage to flout convention and marry her. In a beautiful early scene, Anne attends the wedding of one of her lovers, something she’d sworn she couldn’t bear to do. Rather than sweep the lovely expanse of the church, Gentleman Jack stays focused on Anne’s face throughout the ceremony, and you see all of it play across Jones’s features. She is absolutely heartbroken. For a moment, you wonder if she’ll manage to hold it together, but eventually she straightens her spine and sticks out her chin. She has to move forward.

There is a mismatch in Gentleman Jack, something not quite balanced between the pace of the story and the pace of the protagonist, that feels deliberate. While Anne’s aunt and uncle sit quietly around the dinner table, carefully picking at their plates, and her sister Marian (a fantastic, funny Gemma Whelan) tuts and sighs over Anne’s selfishness, Anne charges ahead. She seems to operate at an entirely different tempo than everyone around her. As she races around her estate, she’s often accompanied by the show’s peppy, triumphant musical theme, which is noticeably too modern for its setting. This discordant music also serves a purpose: Anne is ahead of her time. She doesn’t even quite fit into her own TV series because her life doesn’t fit into her historical moment.

Gentleman Jack could stand to push that discordance even further. Much of the first five episodes provided to critics (out of the show’s eight-episode run) deal with Anne’s seduction of her neighbor Ann Walker. The romance begins as a mercenary decision so Anne can get the funds she needs to mine for coal on her estate, but it quickly becomes a real love affair. Gentleman Jack takes pains to emphasize the pleasures in Anne’s life, the joy and freedom of telling Ann that she loves only women, that she is repulsed by the idea of having sex with men, that she knows this is an essential part of her nature and can’t see the point in trying to fight it. She and Ann caress each other; we see them in bed together, their hair down, intimate and relaxed. But there is less actual sex than might be expected. Maybe there’s a more explicit sex scene in the final three episodes, but from what I’ve seen, this HBO drama about the life of a woman whose diaries carefully recount the quality of her own orgasms, and the quantity of those she gave to others, might’ve done more to live up to Lister’s example.

Likewise, Gentleman Jack seems to shy away from its own stakes. Anne repeatedly discounts the dangers of living openly with a woman, despite the apparent threats of busybodies and social ostracism. Near the end of the fifth episode, she does get a specific, violent response to her behavior, and it feels a little like a pressure valve has been released. I can understand why the series wouldn’t want to punish its protagonist or paint Anne’s life as one of misery. There is gorgeous, important beauty in a story about a woman who takes pleasure in living openly as herself even when she has to go against everyone around her to do it. But downplaying the stakes of Anne’s life also downplays her iconoclasm and her courage. If she had to be a little self-delusional about her own safety, that makes sense. But Gentleman Jack could do a little more to present that self-delusion for what it is: a protective veil, a necessity, and a way of lying to herself so she can be herself.

A few elements of Gentleman Jack could’ve been drawn more subtly to leave more room for complicating Lister’s legacy. In a few scenes we learn Anne’s opinions about political reform: She didn’t see why there should be any or why her tenants should be given the right to vote. We also watch Jones turn to the camera throughout the series, speaking directly to the audience about her motives and asking us to share her exasperation at the idiots around her. The direct-address device makes sense for the material; it replicates Lister’s obsessive diaristic impulse, the need to record her inner self. But both the direct address and the way Gentleman Jack glosses over Anne’s political beliefs come off as simplifications of who Lister was. It’s worth diving into her blindness about the humanity of other people, her generally myopic worldview, but Gentleman Jack gives the impression of not wanting to get too close to anything that might undermine our sympathy for her. The direct address also seems like a bid to make sure we’re on Anne’s side. But Lister’s diaries, for all of their detail and honesty, were also often written in code and not meant for general consumption. Lister was less forthcoming than Gentleman Jack paints her, and the show might be stronger if Anne were less Tristram Shandy, openly asking the audience to look at the story’s construction, and more Villette’s Lucy Snowe, a narrator who actively resents the intrusiveness of someone reading her story.

On the whole, though, the deliberately clashing elements of Gentleman Jack are the things that make it work. They successfully communicate just how unusual Lister was and how adamantly she insisted on being herself. Jones’s Anne moves at a different pace than everyone around her, and if it makes the series feel a bit jumbled, the unevenness has a purpose. I hope the show’s final three episodes will double down on the stakes and pleasures that made Lister an icon and not shy away from the contradictions and flaws that made her human.

Gentleman Jack: A Modern Lesbian in a 19th-Century World