John C Adams Reviews 'Gentleman Jack'
Queer Brönte? Yes please! Some of the happiest years of my life were spent living in West Yorkshire, close to where this lesbian costume drama of the 1830s is set, so when I saw this offering turn up on BBC TV I couldn't wait to dive in.
The 'gentleman' of the title is actually real-life historical figure Anne Lister. She married her girlfriend Ann Walker in a discreet ceremony that involved the couple taking the sacrament together in a York church. This is claimed as the UK's first lesbian wedding. Lister was a true trailblazer, running her family's estate at Shibden Hall, Halifax, dressing as a man and often being mistaken as such, and setting up home with Walker. She was uncompromisingly herself, leading to ostracism and admiration in equal measure.
Lister is played by Suranne Jones in what is likely to become an inspiring and wonderful career-defining role. When the story of 'Gentleman Jack' opens, she returning home after the break up of the latest in a long line of unsuccessful relationships to lick her wounds. She longs to live openly as companions with a female partner, yet over the decades she's seen one lover after another succumb to the lure of a respectable marriage. She's soon frustrated with life at 'shabby little Shibden' and longs to be off on her travels again, but ends up being drawn into the rough and tumble of local business rivalries when she attempts to catch out the merchants stealing coal from her mine. She meets Ann Walker again, who she knew slightly a decade earlier, and they soon fall in love.
Lister is determined to live openly with a female companion Shibden, but Walker is much more vulnerable emotionally. She struggles with both the social consequences and the spiritual implications of their relationship. She has often been depressed and the challenge of taking on societal norms pushes her into a breakdown. As Lister escapes to Europe to travel again, Walker is taken north to Scotland for a lengthy stay with her sister. A wealthy unmarried woman, Walker is constantly a prey to fortune hunters.
One of the strengths of this costume drama lies in the acting, both from Jones and from Sophie Rundle, who plays Walker. A superb ensemble cast portrays the many servants and the Walker and Lister families, as well as archrivals the Rawsons. Jones really becomes the masculine character she brings to life through gesture, movement and voice. Another strength lay in the extensive use of location filming, with the real Shibden Hall being used along with many locations in and around Halifax and York. It's a beautiful part of the world, and I was delighted to see many places I recognised appear on screen.
The story is vividly told and the screenplay was based upon Lister's diaries, which she kept faithfully, writing entries in a code that proved difficult for modern researchers to crack. This gave her the confidence to express herself frankly, and the viewer benefits from the honesty of her story. Jones has brought one of history's little known but larger than life characters to life in an uncompromising performance that stayed true to her source of inspiration.
I love costume drama, Yorkshire and all things LGBT so this series was a welcome intersection of many of my natural interests. I was hooked.
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Many thanks to Adam Rhodes, Jamie Davies and Zhivko Minkov for providing the cover images for this blog via Unsplash.
See you on Monday for my next muse.