In the past few weeks, the world has given us two iconic visions of female power:
The women in these photographs have much in common and much that separates them. One holds a trophy aloft in a parade, the other quietly dons a ring. One is as unmistakably American as the other is profoundly British. One, of course, is a real person, and the other is a character, albeit one based with surprising accuracy on an actual historical figure.
Both Megan Rapinoe, captain of the United States Women’s National Team, and Anne Lister, protagonist of Gentleman Jack, have withstood significant mockery and mistreatment in their quests to win love and success, and both have also benefited from significant privilege. One woman’s hair is short and purple, while the other usually tortures hers into curls, though they both have a tendency to induce paroxysms of lust in their legions of admirers. However, the most important commonality between Megan Rapinoe and Anne Lister is that to watch them as a woman or a queer person is to imagine a version of happiness you had perhaps never before considered: one that never makes itself smaller or quieter, and in no way apologizes for its own existence.
In the case of Anne Lister, Gentleman Jack is out to show us that such joy has always existed, it has merely been burned, stricken from the record, or kept in code, under lock and key, waiting.
Gentleman Jack, a joint production of the BBC and HBO, just concluded its first season, and has proven to be an unexpected breakout hit. The show is based on the “secret diaries” of Miss Anne Lister of Shibden Hall, a Regency-era landowner, businesswoman, mountaineer, amateur anatomist, and passionate lover of women. During her lifetime, Lister kept exhaustive journals detailing the minutiae of her life, but curiously, much of it was recorded in a code of her own design.
In the 1890’s, decades after Anne’s death, one of her descendants finally managed to crack the cypher, and in doing so made a rather shocking discovery: aunt Anne was a practicing homosexual. Her list of conquests was long (like extremely long, like Shane from The L Word would have found it ambitious), and she expressed the same frank, brash curiosity for exploring her own desires as she did for every other facet of her life. Of course, since she existed prior even to the coining of the term “lesbian,” Anne was obliged to invent her own language to describe her preferred acts, in which “queer” is vagina, “incur a cross” is orgasm, and, delightfully, “a trip to Italy” means full sex.
According to the BBC, when Anne’s descendant finally broke the code, the most appropriate course of action seemed to be to burn the diaries. (This demands a moment of pause, as before a tombstone whose letters have all been worn away, and beneath which lie most of our stories.) Yet rather than destroying the journals, John Lister locked them away in the walls of Shibden Hall, and for that we must be grateful. Their true contents were not made public until 1982, when the assiduous scholarship of Helena Whitbread brought them to light.
Gentleman Jack begins Anne’s story in her 41st year, when heartbreak has forced her to return to Yorkshire and her family, where she feels trapped, bored, and misunderstood. Yet in short order, she makes the acquaintance of local heiress Ann Walker, and life begins to feel “packed with possibility” once more.
As thrilling as all that is, and as much as “historical lesbian romance” is the precise combination that unlocks the safe of my heart, I must admit I was predisposed not to like Gentleman Jack. My reasons were three:
- The BBC made a movie of the diaries in 2010 and it was a PROFOUND DISAPPOINTMENT, like taking a bite of a cookie, expecting the warm caress of chocolate chips, and being greeted by cold, wrinkled raisins.
- I have a rather checkered history with Sally Wainwright, the showrunner and creator of Gentleman Jack. Several years ago I was recapping another of her shows, Last Tango in Halifax, when she killed off one half of its lesbian couple in what I still consider to be the most egregiously hurtful example of “bury your gays” I’ve ever witnessed. It was a bad mistake, and even though she has since apologized for it, on some level I don’t think I can fully trust her again.
- I didn’t like the first episode. I blame that partly on needing a learning curve to understand the show’s tone, partly on some awkward editing choices, but mostly on the fact that when we are introduced to Anne Lister, we see some of her worst qualities before we are treated to some of her best.
To be sure, Anne Lister is a woman with significant flaws. Flaws in fact may be too gentle a word, and too easy to confuse with “quirks,” of which she also has plenty. (Most notably an inability to ever let a servant open a carriage door for her and an insistence upon traveling with her beloved thermometer.)
It takes a pretty unfathomable strength of character to live as Anne lives, when everything about her, from the brim of her top hat to the soles of her boots, represents an overt refusal to comply with societal expectations. More even than her attire, the way she moves, and especially walks, tells you exactly who she is. She walks everywhere, always twice as fast as the next person, and delights in forcing men to pant along behind her, and she can’t change it even when she is forced to wear a dress.
The speed and strength and sureness of purpose in her walk is precisely the attitude that propels her through life; it’s that certainty that gives her the unwavering belief that her desire for women is something to be delighted in, not ashamed of. Unfortunately, Anne’s absolute confidence is also the source of her most glaring failures. For one thing, she is (even for her time) deeply retrograde in her notion of class politics. She challenges and outwits the men who cross her path, but it’s a mistake to say she’s on a mission to overthrow the patriarchy. Far from it, she merely wants to take her place in a social order that locates landed and titled gentry at the top.
Her attitude toward her tenants, even when warm, is staggeringly paternalistic. No one on her land is permitted to marry without her permission, the irony of which is utterly lost on her; she is walking too fast to see it. Her sister Marian (Gemma Whelan AKA Yara Greyjoy) gives the series’ funniest moments with her looks to camera that encapsulate what it must be like to be a tugboat chugging along in the wake of such an unstoppable ocean steamer.
With her peers, meanwhile, she is susceptible to the era’s crass and hypocritical preoccupation with wealth. Gentleman Jack is unusually forthright (for a period drama) in confronting us with characters who think it perfectly acceptable to marry someone for their money, but find it unmentionably distasteful to be seen going out and earning any of the stuff.
Indeed, when Anne renews her acquaintance with Ann Walker, her motives are initially less than honorable. To be fair, at first blush Ann Walker strikes you as a delicate tea rose of a woman, incapable of forming her own opinions, lost in her giant house and giant-er dresses.
But then something really marvelous happens. It happens to Anne Lister, who thinks she’s seen it all, and to Ann Walker, who has learned how not to hope for anything, and to queer viewers, who usually greet queer storylines with a mixture of the two attitudes. What happens, you have probably already surmised, is that these two women fall into each other’s eyes and arms and beds. But it’s the way it happens that’s remarkable, the way their romance is the center of this whole vast production. Carriages clatter through the streets, women storm in and out of rooms wearing miles of silk, coal is mined, seasons change, but the whole sumptuous business only exists to cup its hands around two women falling in love.
And how they fall. You know, it burns hot and then gets complicated, and has to slog its way through nosy relations, and Ann’s mental health problems, and Anne’s tangling with the local coal barons.
Naturally, Gentleman Jack was destined to live or die on the strength of its leads, but Suranne Jones and Sophie Rundle have broken the bat, wrecked the grading curve, changed the game. You get the most out of their performances by imagining the words as they were written on the page, and then the alchemical transformation required to turn those words into a series of pauses, of looks toward and away from each other, of the feints toward the things they almost say.
Sophie Rundle has the courage to let you think Ann Walker really is insipid and uninspired, and then she has the skill to make her character find reservoirs of strength she never knew she had, and it’s like watching Luke Skywalker dredge his X-Wing from the swamp. Except in a dress. A dress with really big shoulders.
For her part, Suranne Jones’ performance hit me in a way I can only describe in terms of the personal (if you’ve stuck with me this far, I’ll assume you’re used to it.) I relate to Anne Lister. Even my initial hostility toward her reveals a certain kinship, since I’ve learned that it is often a sign that someone is showing me something about myself that makes me uncomfortable. I too have come to England in the wake of a heartbreak, and have spent the past few weeks behaving much as Anne: walking fast through meadows and on clifftops, often alone, and filled with a purposeful joy, even when melancholy.
At 32 (in a few hours at least, it’s almost my birthday) I’m past the age of gasping, swooning first love, yet I remain full of hope and lust and mischief, and continued surprise and delight at the things my brain and body and heart are capable of, even when they’re just building castles out of air. I can be snobbish, god knows, and persist in walking boldly in the wrong direction because I’m afraid of what doubts might catch me if I slow down. I don’t suffer from some of Anne Lister’s worst faults: I’m not a cad or a social climber, and I am opposed to coal. But I also feel that I (and many of us) have something to learn from Anne Lister’s greatest gift: her unapologetic joy and pride in her own being.
Megan Rapinoe standing on a parade float in Manhattan with a bottle of Veuve in one hand and the World Cup trophy in the other shouting “I DESERVE THIS.”— Josh Billinson (@jbillinson) July 10, 2019
There will never be a bigger mood. pic.twitter.com/GjHMjGkgsS
I’m including this clip partly because it’s delightful and we should all look at Megan Rapinoe as much as possible, but mostly because “I deserve this” is a concept I really struggle with. For the most part, I don’t think anyone can “deserve” life’s gifts or curses. Being born beautiful or rich or brilliant isn’t something someone “deserves,” any more than one deserves the opposite.
But I’m experimenting with thinking that as long as I’m here, I deserve to take up as much space and love as hard and walk as fast as I possibly can. I’m learning how to try this idea on from seeing it modeled by the incredible women of our moment. And I do believe that we all fundamentally deserve stories where the women look into each other’s eyes on the mountaintop and the music swells and the light is golden.
Gentleman Jack is such a triumph, such a joy, that I almost wish it weren’t going to have a second season. I come by this attitude honestly, since years of recapping has taught me that the trickiest part of any story is knowing when to end it. My big worry for Gentleman Jack is that Sally Wainwright will miss the moment and end Anne and Ann’s story with the tragedy of Anne’s death and Ann’s sad fate. But that’s not where I would end it at all.
Stop before that, on any of the thousand small triumphs of their lives.
Or stop afterward, on an anonymous stretch of dark wood wall in Shibden Hall, behind which a trove of diaries is waiting; not merely gathering dust but tensed like a magician waiting to burst forth from behind the secret panel, grinning, arms spread wide, saying “Here I am, I was here all along.”
(If this review positively contributed to your day, please consider making a small donation to @Elaine-Atwell on Venmo because writing these is a joy, but a very time-consuming one, and if you’re reading this on July 13, it is my birthday!)