Gentleman Jack is drawn from the extensive (some four million pages) journals of Anne Lister, a landed class Yorkshire woman widely considered to be the first “modern lesbian” known to history. Those diaries exhaustively detail her rather audacious life as a world traveler, coal magnate, landlord, mountaineer, and “Parisian,” which seems to be a common shorthand in 19th-century Halifax for “avid seducer of other women.” The series focuses on a timeframe in the 1830s dominated by Lister (Suranne Jones) returning to her family home in Yorkshire and setting her sights on nervous heiress Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle) as a companion.
Jones strides into the pilot like a sort of butch, handsome Mary Poppins, her mannish sartorial sensibility subverted by a massive, completely luminous smile. Her demeanor is the kind that in contemporary parlance might be described as “not giving one single solitary fuck,” but that’d be inaccurate. Anne Lister does absolutely give a fuck: Just not about what society mindlessly demands of her based on her sex. She’s a sincere Anglican who believes in God. She’s a woman of significant intellect who values education for its own sake as well as for practical worldly purposes. She’s an avid romantic who is seriously pained by the societal norms that make it especially hard for her to have an authentic love life. She cares about her family (probably even about her younger sister Marian, played with delightfully dour old-maidishness by Gemma Whelan). She cares about her tenants. She’s not a saint and she’s not without class-blinders; she’s vocal about her feeling that there’s no point to working-class people having the vote and it takes four episodes for her to even notice her maid is pregnant. But when a carriage accident maims the son of one of her tenant farmers she has a sustained keenness to deal with it and get whatever justice the kid can reasonably get. She exudes intelligence and canniness and competence and a general lust for life that flies in the face of everything you think of as Victorian womanhood. These qualities magnetize a lot of people. And threaten the hell out of others. I guess the good news about being a relentlessly polarizing character is you usually don’t have to question where you stand with people. The rest of the news, though, is that half of them will actively work to prevent you getting what you need.
In many ways, Gentleman Jack is a classic Victorian love story, full of slow pacing and drawing rooms; sequestered, cosseted ladies and scrappy servants; corsets and hoopskirts; seemingly insurmountable divisions of sex and class. There’s a greedy, dishonest industrialist and a love forbidden by the repressive mores of the day. The variable is Lister, who is female. This basically makes everything she does shocking and controversial and weird, whether it’s collecting her tenants’ rents on her own or walking without an escort or firing a drunk laborer or playing hardball over the cost per acre of leasing a coal mine. Or begging for the hand of a wealthy young woman. But this story isn’t merely about how putting a woman in a generally male context makes us feel surprised or causes us to confront unconscious prejudice, though I suppose those things might also happen. What stands out for me is how destabilized we are with respect to our faith in the characters’ intentions. That seriously brought me up short. I had periods of doubting several primary characters’ motives, including Lister’s. Was she manipulating Walker or was her interest sincere? Was it a calculated attempt to take advantage of a delicate younger woman for her money? Did Anne Lister simply have a compulsion to seduce vulnerable people? With Walker it got even weirder. Was she secretly queer as well? Was her fascination with Lister genuine? Was she working the older woman over for some massively unsavory reason? She was clearly lying or at least not telling the whole truth about certain things; was that fear or something nastier? Wait, is there anything nastier than fear? Honestly, it seems like fear underlies most of the cruelty on earth.
The thing is, repressive, intolerant cultures breed a ferocious, dogmatic need to adhere to perceived norms. In every time and place, people fear otherness—though I suspect what we really fear is authenticity. The gauntlet thrown by the rare humans who fully inhabit themselves in public is, for whatever reason, so unbearably threatening I think we make up otherness, or at least make up the idea that otherness might harm us, as a scapegoat or a smokescreen. This leads to all kinds of fuckery against those who cannot or will not: being subjected to drowning to prove they aren’t possessed of supernatural crop-withering abilities, or tortured because their aberrant behaviors are proof they are possessed by demons. It also provokes more quotidian and thus more pernicious manifestations of evil; plain old mundane vilification of people who have committed the crime of being a little atypical. The pressure applied to people who run afoul of the peanut gallery is at best cruel and unnecessary. At best.
Not everything about the series works: For my money, there’s something defensive about the choice to have Jones constantly narrate from her diaries in direct addresses to the camera—they’re diaries, not speeches, and indeed many of the details were written in a part-Greek, part algebraic code. And I’m not sure the show has found its stance on the “stakes” of her choice to live openly as a lesbian. Sometimes it feels balanced and sometimes it doesn’t. Similarly, there were many moments when I found it difficult to buy the idea that someone as ahead of her time, as smart and strong and savvy as Anne Lister seems, would be that drawn to Rundle’s Ann Walker, who is relentlessly and sometimes cruelly governed by her fears and her delicate “nerves.” It didn’t feel authentic to me that someone like Lister would put up with that amount of crap from anyone, or at least that Walker hadn’t established herself as someone who was potentially worth the pain.
But certainly watch Gentleman Jack. Watch it for an interesting depiction of 19th-century Yorkshire society with sleek, colorful production and a lot of beautiful high-contrast scenery; rolling green fields and hedgerows starting to sprout factory smokestacks, or Lister’s frock coat and men’s hat and frank stare amid all those blonde ringlets and pastel silk gowns and sunlit yellow drawing room walls. Watch it for Jones’ forceful, vivacious, smart-as-hell portrayal of a defiant iconoclast who chose to value her own integrity over whatever it was society needed her to value. Though all the performances are relatively strong (Whelan’s perhaps especially), Jones instantly becomes the center of gravity in every frame she’s in. Perhaps most of all, though, watch it for what it suggests about why it nearly always makes sense to be yourself. Even if it sometimes hurts, because of course it will, whoever you are.
Gentleman Jack premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on HBO.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.