It's not hard to believe that the story HBO's limited series Gentleman Jack is based on is true, but it is surprising that its inspiring central figure Anne Lister isn't more widely known. A wealthy landowner and industrialist in the 1800s, Lister detailed her life's story in a five-million-word diary that chronicled, in part, her sexual adventures and romantic relationships with women in a secret, self-created code. She's a fascinating, larger-than-life figure whose story seems tailor-made for an on-screen adaptation, but she has gone widely underserved in popular culture with the exception of a few lesser-known BBC Two projects. Fortunately for us, Sally Wainwright is set to finally do Lister's life justice in the new HBO and BBC One co-production, which premieres Monday.
Created and written by Wainwright, who is best known for the critically acclaimed crime drama Happy Valley and who aspired to write a drama based on Anne Lister for over 20 years prior to this project, Gentleman Jack is an enthralling look at the inner life of a woman forced to hide so much of herself from the world, yet who never shied away from boldly pursuing exactly what she wanted — and with quite impressive force. After the dissolution of her last relationship and a long period away traveling, in 1832 Lister (the magnetic Suranne Jones) returns to her family home in Halifax where she immediately takes charge — collecting the rent, overseeing major renovations, opening a colliery — much to the chagrin of her perennially overlooked and far more traditional sister Marian, played with comical grievance by Game of Thrones' Gemma Whelan.
While Lister's foray into coal provides ample opportunities for the local businessmen to mansplain the industry, attempt to take advantage of her, and demonstrate just how much she was constantly underestimated by those around her, the convoluted (and quite criminal) business of coal mining is far less appealing than the series' driving romance between Lister and the sheltered heiress Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle).
More than a decade Lister's junior and often patronized by her leeching relatives, Walker's gentle nature brings out the softer side of the brusque Lister, who falls for the young woman almost immediately and whose thrills at the potential new romance exposes a childlike excitement hidden underneath her gruff exterior. Determined not just to begin an affair but to make Walker her wife, Lister begins courting the sweet heiress and is happy to find her affections returned. But even before Walker's own romantic intentions are made clear, the chemistry between Sophie Rundle and Suranne Jones is exquisitely palpable, imbuing even the earliest stages of hesitant flirtation with the intoxicating sensuality of a love scene.
However, contrary to the self-assured Lister, who bears little mind to her reputation (she's mockingly called Gentleman Jack by members of the community due to her masculine appearance), Walker wavers greatly in her ability to commit, a fear that seems to be driven more by a poor self-image and struggles with her mental health than of any actual desire to fall in line with the repressive roles of the day. And it's this struggle that reveals one of Lister's own internal obstacles: her inflexible impatience. Everything Lister does, she does with blunt purpose and single-minded efficiency. And while she seems unfazed by the opposition she receives from those who dislike her defiance of patriarchal norms - in fact, she often seems emboldened by it — when it comes to matters of love, Lister appears brittle, prone to break under the weight of yet another heartache rather than find compassion for her lover's struggles or unique situation.
While Lister has few people she can confide in about her romantic struggles (although she does speak fairly openly with her aunt, played by Gemma Jones), Wainwright provides the internal insight into Lister that so few of her peers receive by allowing her heroine to break the fourth wall. In occasionally speaking directly to the camera or giving a Jim Halpert-worthy knowing look to the viewer, the emotional barricades Lister has built around herself briefly give way to provide viewers a direct line into her inner most thoughts, desires, fears, and humor.
There is an unexpected playfulness to the series, due not only to Lister's sardonic wit but Wainwright's own cheekiness and willingness to experiment; at one point, Lister has to break her direct gaze with the camera after Walker wonders aloud what exactly she's looking at. Through meta moments like this, comical uses of flashbacks, and quirky asides, Wainwright takes a story that is typically so serious — that of repressed women, prejudices, and forbidden love — and gives it a sense of lightness that make the moments of emotional turmoil that much more impactful when they do finally hit.
There are far too few lesbian romances that are allowed to play central roles in mainstream media, let alone ones that also double as costume dramas. But what Wainwright does in Gentleman Jack is not only provide us with a story we haven't seen before, but allow Lister and Walker to be far more than just their tumultuous love story. They are each incredibly complex individuals with interests outside of their relationship, personal ambitions, insecurities, and senses of humor — all of which are explored with care and which leave you wanting to learn more about everyone involved.
Fans of Happy Valley won't necessarily find themselves immediately drawn to the more restrained world of Gentleman Jack if what they loved was the heart-stopping thrills of the adrenaline-fueled crime drama, but for those who loved Wainwright's way with words — and her gift of creating lovably complex characters who live just left of center — they'll likely find themselves charmed by the period drama and, much like Miss Walker, falling under the spell of Anne Lister, one of the most compelling women in British history and one of the most captivating new characters of the year so far.
Gentleman Jack airs Mondays at 10/9c on HBO.