Episode One of Gentleman Jack treads a fine line. Is it to be a tale about a deliciously butch Prince(ss) Charming who is brave enough to ignore social conventions and seek out true love? Or is it a less attractive story of a pushy and privileged land-owning heir who gets to do most of what she wants because she is wealthy enough to get away with it? There is just enough of both to give this serialized 1830s period drama about Anne Lister (Suranne Jones) room to grow.
Lister was a real woman who was born in 1791 and died in 1840. She became known as ‘the first modern lesbian’ after the secret code her 4 million word diaries were written in was cracked in the 1930s. Their intimate sexual details revealed what it was like to live and love as a woman with enough financial freedom to call some of her own shots. She was determined to marry a woman and achieved one of the earliest recorded cases of a lesbian ‘church wedding’.
In this series Lister has returned to restore the finances of her inherited home Shibden Hall after traveling the world and losing her prior lover to heterosexual marriage. She rejects traditional female dress and behavior. If there is rent to be collected, or a lame horse to be shot, Anne is the woman for the job. Her self-possessed honesty draws the admiration of other women “She is an original, she is natural…when one leaves nature behind one leaves our only steady guide behind”. When reintroduced to the shy but wealthy Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle) she immediately sees someone ripe for conquest.
Whilst honest and brave Lister is by no means easy to like all the time. Her truth telling is gruff and grumpy. She is kinder to strangers than to her own “shabby family”. She has also inherited the patrician entitlement of her landed class. Whilst reluctantly paying his dues one of her renters says that the time when tenants will be ready to get rid of the shackle of the land owners is coming. Her instinctive reaction is to prepare to fight for what she believes should always be hers. Set at the time when the Reform Bill was giving non aristocratic men the right to vote she largely argues for female suffrage based on the opinion that her poor male tenants should not be set above her as a landowner. It is a reminder of some of the economic realities of the period. Lastly her sneering put down of the family doctor as having a “mincing walk” that makes her ‘suspicious’ is also something that does not make her the automatic hero for progressive viewers.
The first episode rattles along with a stirring pace brought to life by a romping soundtrack. The costumes and settings have the rigorous authenticity of most British costume drama. Suranne Jones as Anne Lister is athletically charismatic and mixes roguish arrogance with a touchingly wounded and romantic heart. Not quite a hero to love yet but with sufficient character to build the foundations for the next few episodes.
Review by Andrew Hebden
Queerguru Correspondent Andrew Hebden is a MEDIA & CULTURAL STUDIES graduate spending his career between London, Beijing and NYC as an expert in media and social trends. As part of the expanding minimalist FIRE movement he recently returned to the UK and lives in Soho. He devotes as much time as possible to the movies, theatre and the gym. His favorite thing is to try something (anything) new every day.