Series Review

Series 'Gentleman Jack' decodes the true story of the first modern lesbian

Actress Suranne Jones plays the eccentric Anne Lister in a period series that's a real-life tale of pride and a different kind of prejudice

01 September 2019 - 00:05 By staff reporter
Suranne Jones as Anne Lister in 'Gentleman Jack'.
Suranne Jones as Anne Lister in 'Gentleman Jack'.
Image: Supplied

They call Anne Lister the first modern lesbian. It takes a lot of courage to live openly in this day in age, so being completely unapologetic in 1832 took serious balls.

Even by today's standards Lister was a marvel; traversing around Europe, hiking in the Pyrenees, performing autopsies (illegally) to learn anatomy from famous French physicians, and partying with the Queen of Denmark were all in a day's work.

But what Lister is now most famous for is being the first woman in Britain to take a wife. Not legally, of course, but the two did exchange rings and vows under knowing silence in a church in England on Easter in 1834. For that, she is a modern-day hero.

Until the 1980s, though, she was known only as an eccentric "lord" and proprietor of the largest aristocratic house in Halifax - a scandalous and unheard of situation at the time, as ladies were only supposed to knit and look pretty. Lister's uncle knew, however, that she was the only financially savvy member of the family.

She was also known as a prolific diarist, detailing every waking moment of her life, but all the juicy stuff - the sexual and scandalous - was hidden from prying eyes by the use of intricate code comprised of Greek alphabet, zodiac, punctuation, and mathematical symbols.

It would take a century and a half for her tales of seduction to come to light, thanks to the many years of decoding by Helena Whitbread who published the first decoded accounts of Lister's antics in 1988. 

It's these accounts that have been brought to life by the BBC and HBO in Gentleman Jack - the name is derived from a homophobic slur and moniker given to Lister while she was alive.

WATCH | The trailer for 'Gentleman Jack'

The series is the brainchild of writer and director Sally Wainwright, who is best known for her work on Happy Valley and Last Tango in Halifax. But besides the top-notch costumes, it's actor Suranne Jones as Lister, who brings the series to life.

Her incredible delivery and flawless character work makes it impossible to imagine her as anyone other than Anne Lister. Her arched sarcastic eyebrow appears to be a character on its own, bringing levity and brightness to what Dickens often painted as a dreary time.

But for all the banter, gangsters and a touch of murder and mystery, a love story is at the heart of the series. Each episode is centred around Lister's attempts at wooing Ann Walker, something akin to the machinations of Mr Darcy.

The story is treated with the careful grace of any heterosexual Austin-like romance, never sullied with the shock-value sensuality that HBO is sometimes guilty of. But the cost of being true to oneself and the emotional toll of a queer life is always in the background.

It's a real-life tale of pride and a different kind of prejudice, only this time it is all wonderfully true and unbelievably real.

• Gentleman Jack is on Showmax.

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