Taking up space isn’t something women are conditioned to do. Almost 20 years into the 21st century and we still have to fight for every inch. Then an extraordinary woman strides onto our TV screens and shows us how to do it. You simply claim your place, she tells us. You do not wait for it to be offered and you definitely do not ask for it. That’s Anne Lister of Shibden Hall, Halifax, for you – landowner, industrialist, mountaineer, writer, lover of women – as portrayed in Gentleman Jack. She lived two and a half centuries ago.
When it comes to TV drama, queer women are a cynical lot. It’s a cynicism born of being let down time and time again, in fact, you could call it an armour – a protective shell against seeing queer characters and relationships portrayed as dispensable, their storylines invariably about sacrifice and heroism, or catalysts for straight characters’ narratives. In fact, the “dead lesbian” trope is something that even Sally Wainwright, the producer of Gentleman Jack, has flirted with before.
She went the whole hog and Killed a Lesbian on Her Wedding DayTM in 2015 in Last Tango in Halifax (a black lesbian at that too, the show’s only character of colour). Thereafter, in an interview to Diva magazine, she said that it had been a “narrative decision” and “more about” the relationship between the bereft partner and her mother. A tremendous backlash and two years later, she admitted that it had been a mistake. If Gentleman Jack is her repentance, one might (albeit cautiously, for it’s not over yet) declare that she’s been forgiven.
In the series, Anne Lister (played masterfully by Suranne Jones) is depicted as unapologetically butch. There is nothing remotely feminine in her voluminous black skirts, cleverly tailored to allow her to wear masculine shirts and ties, in her top hat and stick. Yet she never lets you forget that she is a woman and equal to anybody else. Lister doesn’t walk, she strides; she doesn’t ask, she demands; she takes no prisoners and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She is unabashed about the power she wields as a rich landowner. And she doesn’t back down. Her only weakness – the ladies she loves.
Anne Lister was a dedicated diarist and is said to have left over 4 million words – most of then in a secret code – recording various aspects of her life and in especially great detail her dalliances. These dairies have been the source of multiple documentaries, series and films, Gentleman Jack being the most recent. And, for all the 1830s sensibilities it operates within, it turns out to be one of the most joyous depictions of the story of a queer woman.
One would be hard pressed to pin Gentleman Jack down into any of the slots available to stories about lesbian and bisexual women. This is not a story of sexual awakening – Lister is a charming, confident lover, she needs no reassurance. Nor is it the tragedy of a female who’s not really a womanly creature, forced into a life of compliance – no, Lister lives by her own terms, without apology.
In fact, Gentleman Jack manages to capture a particular nuance of storytelling that eludes most writers – to portray a queer woman (and you could replace this with any marginalised identity) as the hero in her own story. How ironic that this groundbreaking depiction should come from a 19th-century woman who was, for all intents and purposes, an out lesbian in a rigidly conservative society.
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