Whether you’re an avid Jane Austen fan or actively avoid the inevitable onslaught of period dramas during the holiday season, they are a staple of British television. Personally, I find something cosy in period dramas, easy watching that the whole family can enjoy. Gentleman Jack is none of these things, in the best way possible.
The show is a welcome game changer to some of the familiar tropes viewers of the period drama have thus far endured. It’s earthy and lively with earlier episodes being surprisingly raunchy (seriously, I wouldn’t advise watching this period drama with your grandmother!) as well as two pivotal and gruesome scenes that bode a major fallout for some of the characters.
Gentleman Jack is none of these things, in the best way possible
But the star of the show is Anne Lister or ‘Gentleman Jack’ herself. Described by some as the Victorian Fleabag, Suranne Jones (of Doctor Foster) makes a stellar turn here as the bold Anne Lister. With her devilish looks to the camera, her bold flirtations with Jane Austen-esque ladies and standing toe to toe with the men around her despite their threats, she commands the audience’s attention.
The series is based on the diaries the real Anne Lister kept, dubbed by some as the first modern lesbian. Anne Lister strived to defy the strict gender conventions of her time by running her own home, being landlord to numerous tenants, seeking a broad education in science, medicine and business, travelling the world and taking part in the coal mining industry. She also was determined to find herself a wife, preferably one with a little cash to spend. The show’s writer, creator, executive producer and director, Sally Wainwright (a contributing scriptwriter to the radio series The Archers) has created a complex female character who knows her own mind and is never afraid to strive for what she wants.
Anne Lister strived to defy the strict gender conventions of her time
Indeed, what’s inspiring about the character of Anne Lister is her unabashed nature, her refusal to feel shame because of her love for women which seems especially astonishing and admirable, considering the stereotype of the prude and proper 1800’s where they had no word for lesbian yet. It’s wonderful to see a female character from a period drama unapologetically chart her own course, and simultaneously an LGBTQ+ character be wholly accepting of herself.
What’s also wonderful is to see the presentation of Lister’s family in the series as quietly accepting of Anne. Again, they might not have the words yet to understand her, but they love and support her for who she is nonetheless. Look out for hilarious interactions between Anne and her sister, Marian (Yara Greyjoy from Game of Thrones) who embodies the result of strict gender conventions as they come head to head, yet ultimately hold affection for one another.
But Anne’s determination does still meet adversity. As the show progresses viewers are reminded of how ahead of her time Anne Lister was. This is best embodied by Sophie Rundle’s portrayal of Ann Walker, Lister’s love interest. Walker is the softness to Lister’s hard edges. Through her shy and quiet demeanour, she acts as a foil to Lister’s seemingly undeterrable bravery as she battles with her blossoming feelings and fragile mental health as society and its expectations rear their ugly heads in their relationship.
What’s inspiring about the character of Anne Lister is her unabashed nature, her refusal to feel shame because of her love for women
The show reigns back its raunchy nature as it progresses, broadening its exploration of wider issues and unpacking the dangers Lister actually faces when she makes her escapades and adventures all seem so easy. The heartbreak and loneliness Lister had endured slowly comes to the surface towards the series’ close. Her eccentricities make her fascinating to those around her but simultaneously unknowable. The show’s title poignantly emphasises that loneliness through difference as well as Lister’s awesome ownership of identity, with ‘Gentleman Jack’ referring to the unflattering nickname she received in her home town of Halifax.
If there was one criticism of the show, it is that Jones and Rundle’s romance is so captivating, it’s hard for other plotlines to compete for engagement and they end up feeling like filler. There is one subplot involving the servants of Shibden House, Lister’s home, that has thus far served no apparent purpose.
All in all, with its lush fields, stately homes, heavy skirts and ringlets, Gentleman Jack may have the trappings of a typical period drama, but it’s something quite different. So, move over Mr Darcy. There’s a new romantic hero in town.
You can catch Series One of Gentleman Jack on BBC iPlayer