Hold on to Your Hats: HBO's 'Gentleman Jack' is a Wild Ride!

Gentleman Jack (Suranne Jones) arrives in town. Photo: HBO

HBO/BBC’s Gentleman Jack tells the story of the remarkable Anne Lister, an industrialist and world traveler who lived in the late Georgian period near Halifax, West Yorkshire. Her extensive diaries included not only details of everyday life, but also coded descriptions of her love affairs with other women.  I had my reservations about this series (read my post from a couple of months ago to find out why) and honestly wondered whether writer/director Sally Wainwright (Last Tango in Halifax, Happy Valley, To Walk Invisible) could deliver.  

Not to worry. Wainwright, along with star Suranne Jones (Scott & Bailey, Doctor Foster) in the title role, knocks it out of the park.The real Anne Lister is listed on the credits as co-writer, since excerpts from her diaries, some never previously translated before, are included as bits of dialogue. And Jones is Lister—arrogant, clever, fearless. She’s dressed in black, with a wide skirt to enable climbing walls, or striding across her estate, and manspreads just about every time she sits down; she twirls her cane and tips her top hat at a rakish angle when off to visit her latest conquest. Her features are wonderfully androgynous and expressive.

For me, the series’ triumph is that the vulnerable, likeable side of Anne is revealed, and the writing has a great deal of humor. When Anne returns home at the beginning of the series she’s depressed at having to return to her “shabby little house” (Shibden Hall, quite a substantial historic building) and her “shabby little family” (more about them later). She’s humiliated and heartbroken by the breakup of a love affair and while she’s tempted to take off for adventures abroad again, the presence of a neighbor, Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle), tempts her to stay.

Miss Walker and her aunt are at Shibden Hall calming down from the shock of a road accident when Anne arrives. They are unhurt, but their coach was damaged when a speeding gig collided with a cart carrying Anne’s new tenants and their belongings. Their son was badly injured (warning: amputation talk).  We pretty much know who was driving the gig early on, and that subplot is not nearly as absorbing as those involving other tenants and Anne’s servants. (Confusingly, there’s quite a lot of fast driving in this episode as Anne takes it upon herself to drive the stagecoach into town, terrorizing the other passengers.)

We are plunged right into the dynamics of the Lister family—and this is where Wainwright excels. Anne’s younger sister Marian (Gemma Whelan, Upstart Crow, Game of Thrones) has been storing resentment for years as she stays at home while Anne cavorts glamorously abroad and gets all the attention.  Their father Jeremy Lister (Timothy West) is selectively deaf (and I don’t blame him a bit given the amount of door slamming and shouting that takes place when both sisters are in the house). Aunt Lister (Gemma Jones) is possibly the only one who fully accepts Anne. She doesn’t understand her niece’s sexuality, but she is genuinely concerned for Anne’s happiness.

Anne Lister (Suranne Jones), her father Jeremy (Timothy West), sister Marian (Gemma Whelan) and Aunt Lister (Gemma Jones). Photo: BBC
Anne Lister (Suranne Jones), her father Jeremy (Timothy West), sister Marian (Gemma Whelan) and Aunt Lister (Gemma Jones). Photo: BBC

We discover that Miss Walker’s family is equally troubled (pardon the formality but I’m not going to make you decipher Ann vs. Anne). She is lonely, fragile, and borderline sick with one of those vague female problems afflicting wealthy nineteenth-century women. The deaths of her parents prevented her from getting out and about in society so she is now a 29-year-old rich spinster and her relatives go to great lengths to keep off fortune hunters and/or suitors in trade. (Trade? Really? In one of the major industrial areas in the world? Marian runs into the same problem when the family finds out she is being wooed by a—wait for it—carpet manufacturer. The horror!)

In addition to the charms of Miss Walker, Anne is intrigued and challenged by problems on her own estate around Shibden. She plunges right in after learning that their manager is sick (warning: ulcers. Kudos to the makeup/special effects team) and can’t collect the rents. Neither can her father. So Anne does it herself and we see her extremely firm hand with her tenants, resulting in this bit of dialogue, nose-to-nose:

Sam Sowden: There’ll come a time when tenants throw landlords off the land. You know that, don’t you.

Anne Lister: Well Sowden, when the time comes, us landlords will give as good as we get.

She’s in an unusual and frustrating position. The 1832 Reform Bill has passed, opening up the right to vote to a limited extent, based upon income/property qualifications (read all about it here). But the language of the bill specifically calls for male suffrage. So Anne, as a rich female landowner, is not qualified, but thirty of her tenants are. Understandably she is not happy about it.

Anne interviews a potential new estate manager who is currently working for Miss Walker’s estate (another excuse to visit!) and seeking additional work, Samuel Washington (Joe Armstrong). He reveals that there are rich coal seams on Anne’s estate, and that it’s possible that the local coal mafia, Jeremiah (Shaun Dooley) and Christopher Rawson (Vincent Franklin) are very interested. So interested, in fact, that they’re probably tunneling under her land, stealing her coal. Washington proposes that he sink a mine, and although he doesn’t know anything about the industry, he’ll learn how to do it from books. This gives him an immediate affinity with Anne and her passion for learning, and so far she hasn’t shouted at him or gone nose-to-nose.

So, enter the villains, the ruthless Rawson brothers. Christopher has recently disposed of a new gig (aha!). They make the mistake of thinking that Anne Lister is just another gullible woman, that, even worse, fancies the ladies herself.

Yes, back to the interesting stuff. The courtship between the two women is adorable, although during polite chit-chat over tea, Anne casually mentions that she attended an autopsy of a baby in Paris. Worst pick-up line ever, Anne.

Miss Lister is charming and gallant, and if at first she is seeking Miss Walker’s company as a pleasant diversion, she soon begins to fall for her. She even builds her a tiny round thatched cottage for their trysts, which I think must be based on the home where another famous female duo, the Ladies of Llangollen lived in domestic bliss. But people—notably members of the Walker family—begin to gossip and we see how Miss Walker, who has been confounding medical science thanks to Anne's attentions, is once again fragile and frightened. And as we learn she has reason to be fearful. Anne, who is undoubtedly in love with Miss Walker, nevertheless has a pragmatic interest in a commitment from her: she needs money to start her coal mine and wants Miss Walker as a wife. Her family—at least her father and aunt—agree: it’s high time Anne settled down. It seems heartless, but this was how the world worked.

There are frequent voiceovers, quoting excerpts from the diaries, and a few delicious moments breaking the fourth wall, i.e. speaking into the camera. Beyond the wit and words, this is a visually sumptuous production with truly wonderful costumes. A clever historical detail in the title footage shows Anne inserting a busk into her corset—a piece of wood to keep the body straight. Naturally, busks held erotic significance and were often elaborately carved and presented to a lady by her lover. Anne’s shows the Lister coat-of-arms.

As a contrast to Anne’s severe black masculine-inspired clothes costume designer Tom Pye (who also collaborated with Wainwright on To Walk Invisible) increased the frou-frou content of the other women’s clothes exaggerating the huge gigot (leg-of-mutton) sleeves, elaborate bonnets, and extravagant lace. You can see the dramatic effect of this when Anne attends a former lover’s wedding in her best black and a gorgeous hat trimmed with ostrich feathers and beading, based on one worn by the Queen of Naples in 1814. You can read more about Tom Pye’s costumes here.

Anne Lister (Gentleman Jack). Photo: HBO
Anne Lister (Gentleman Jack). Photo: HBO

The headgear is altogether spectacular. (OK, I admit that this is something of a specialized obsession.) Women wore caps in this period that denoted status and wealth. Farmers’ wives wear plain linen caps but  pper servants like Cordingley (Rosalie Cavaliero), Anne’s former ladies’ maid promoted to housekeeper, and her current ladies’ maid Eugénie (Albane Courtois), sport gorgeous frilly lace concoctions.

Anne Lister (Suranne Jones) and Eugenie (Albane Courtois). Photo: HBO
Anne Lister (Suranne Jones) and Eugenie (Albane Courtois). Photo: HBO

Poor Eugénie. Her fiancé, it appears was shot in York recently. Out of a tree. This was rather a surreal moment, but it was revealed that he was helping a gamekeeper shoot crows, and got in the line of fire. Unfortunately, Eugénie is pregnant and speaks no English, so Cordingley, who speaks a little French, explains that the family can’t find out because she will be fired (although I suspect Anne knows). But then salvation appears in the form of a proposal from one of the servants, John, with Cordingley acting as interpreter. It’s a very sweet scene and serves as a mirror to the burgeoning romance between Anne and Miss Walker. Sadly Eugénie loses her baby and promptly drops John.

When Anne finds out about John’s proposal she’s very annoyed: it just isn’t proper for an outside servant to propose to a high-ranking female servant, and neither speak each other’s language. However, communication is not a problem, since John cryptically announces that Eugénie has been very kind. And this is a reminder that although Anne can be all dashing charm and wit, she is a dreadful snob and, in some respects, heartless. When she tours a coal mine she engages in a practical discussion of how younger, shorter children are better for the work, after encountering a boy with an injured head.

The same thoughtful approach that is used for costumes is applied to the interiors, those of Shibden Hall being dark and old-fashioned, whereas Crows’ Nest, Miss Walker’s house, is pretty and pastel (like its owner!), full of light and with fashionable furniture and wallpaper. Even the clocks express the difference between the two houses; in Shibden Hall you hear the uneven ticking of an old clock and Crows’ Nest features a delicate chiming timepiece. Anne frequently pulls out a man’s pocketwatch to put an end to meetings or to get rid of unwelcome company. I suspect the series may turn darker as Anne pressures Miss Walker to accept her proposal and things heat up with the coal mafia and malicious gossip.

Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle). Photo: BBC
Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle). Photo: BBC

And a few more warnings: More ulcers, domestic abuse, and stuff with pigs you really don’t want to know about.)

Meanwhile, I’m loving this rollicking romp. Have you been watching the series? What do you think?

Janet Mullany

Writer Janet Mullany is from England, drinks a lot of tea, and likes Jane Austen, reading, and gasping in shock at costumes in historical TV dramas. Her household near Washington DC includes two badly-behaved cats about whom she frequently boasts on Facebook.

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