Gentleman Jack was screened in the UK on the BBC 19th May 2019. Our regular blogger Beth Kennedy reviews the first episode and sheds some more light on the real Anne Lister.
“I love, & only love, the fairer sex & thus beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any other love than theirs.”
These are the words written by Anne Lister, an entrepreneur and aristocrat from Halifax, Yorkshire. Most famous for her detailed four-million word diary, Lister was one of the first well-documented lesbians in the ‘modern’ world. After all, in the BBC’s Gentleman Jack, Lister (played magnificently by Suranne Jones) says “You don't have to offend me to grace the pages of my journal. Sometimes, I write about people I really like.”
At first I thought Gentleman Jack didn’t really do a great job of portraying how hard it was to be a lesbian in such unforgiving times...even if Anne was a rich woman living with her lover Miss Hobart .Anne’s Aunt does do the whole predictable skirting around Anne’s sexuality thing when she says Anne was “acting as a sort of companion to Miss Hobart” and “she's on the way home via various friends' houses.”
But then I remembered something from my recent trip to the People’s History Museum in Manchester. Unlike gay men, it has never actually been illegal to be a lesbian. I know, we should be rejoicing as it’s essentially a “lesbian loophole.” But the truth is, people didn’t take us seriously enough to even consider prosecuting us for it. Just look at this little piece of history I found at the museum:
I thought it was hilarious but also a glowing example of how women weren’t taken seriously...even when it came to homophobia. Or perhaps people were so confused by lesbians that they just outright denied them an existence in everyday society! This particular section of the museum was part of a feminist exhibition and I highly recommend visiting it. It’s free to get in and you’ll probably spend a good three or four hours in there.
Anyway, back to Lister. She is known as the world’s first “modern lesbian” - modern because she was supposedly out and proud. But I do have a problem with that, as her diary entries about her relationships were written in code. When she was a teenager she created a secret code using Ancient Greek and Algebra with her then-girlfriend Eliza Raine. We could argue that it wasn’t that she was hiding the fact she was a lesbian, but more attempting to treasure those private, sometimes explicit, memories. After all, diaries are a great way to record our deepest feelings!
Gentleman Jack also didn’t hold back when it came to Anne’s snobbish ways. One of things I enjoyed the most about Suranne Jones's interpretation of Lister are the more subtle aspects of her character...if I can call them subtle! There’s one scene where they’re having afternoon tea and her sister goes to butter her bread first. Anne glares at her like she is competition. It’s a “blink and you miss it” moment. It seems the TV show went all out with regards to all the little details from the way Anne walks to the way she sits when she interviews a potential manager to help out with her family’s estate. These seemingly insignificant things really demonstrated the character of Anne Lister for me and what’s to come!
During the first 15 minutes of the episode Anne comes across as a strong and charming woman who just wants to get things done. But the TV show stayed true to history and still portrayed Anne’s despotic side when it comes to collecting rent from her elderly tenants. My partner and I went from “Oh wow, she’s so cool!” to “Hmmm, bit mean isn’t she!” in the space of half an hour. This is all down to the magical combination of fantastic story-telling by the wonderful Sally Wainwright (Also the writer for Happy Valley!) and the talents of Suranne Jones.
Let’s go back to the title credits as an example. The theme tune, and the ending credits theme was Gentleman Jack by O’Hooley & Tidow. The colourful folk song written and released by the duo in 2012 is actually about Anne herself.
What I found very funny was the lyrics of the song “The fairer sex fell under her spell / Dapper and bright, she held them tight / Handsome Anne seduced them well” were self-fulfilling in the Twitter world. Emily Atack, of Inbetweeners fame, found herself ‘under her spell:’
Anyway, during the title theme tune we see Anne dressing in her trademark black ‘gentleman’s’ clothing to a hearty frontier-like beat. In fact, it reminded me of the game Red Dead Redemption 2, which is also full of mavericks rebelling against traditional society (I’m sorry, the gamer in me can’t resist a quick mention!). Anne’s real-life wardrobe choices were deliberate. Women in the 19th century traditionally wore black during everyday life if they were mourning their husbands - just look at Queen Victoria. But I like to think Lister wore black just because she was rebelling against societal norms...and it’s a very striking block colour.
Speaking of colours, the wording of a blue plaque outside a church where Anne privately married another woman (no spoilers here), was recently changed from “gender non-conforming” to “lesbian.” It brings me to the question: “Why are people so afraid of the word lesbian?” Even some lesbians won’t use the word. Of course, it is a choice and no one should be forced to use a word they don’t want to use. But we should be asking ourselves...are people scared of the word lesbian? Has it become a ‘dirty word’ reserved only for porn catered to straight men?
Some will use the word gay as a cross-community reference to both gay men and lesbians. It does smack a little bit of patriarchy (excuse my inner feminist here), as a lot of “LGBT+” events, such as pride and general nightlife, are geared towards gay men. After all, it’s all about the sparkle, drag queens, campness and unicorns (which is not a bad thing at all). I hope I don’t sound like a bitter lesbian here, as I enjoy pride as much as anyone, but the evidence is there. When straight people think of LGBT+, they immediately think of gay men...because we don’t use the word lesbian often enough. I hope that Gentleman Jack will encourage more of us to use the word “lesbian” in everyday life.
And, as for the TV show itself, I can’t wait to see what Anne gets up to next!