"I thoroughly intend to live with someone I love," says Anne Lister. She's having a post-sex chat with longtime lover Marina Lawton, who has just suggested that Anne marry a man in order to gain a title and money. The sex, she said, mightn’t even be necessary.
Anne continues: "I thoroughly intend to spend my evening hour with someone who loves me. Someone who is there all of the time to share everything with, not someone who drops in every now and again whenever an irritable husband permits it."
Allow us to introduce you to a formidable woman in British history, someone whose real life you’re about to watch unfold on screen. In BBC One’s new Sunday night drama, Gentleman Jack, we meet Anne Lister (played by the ever wonderful Suranne Jones) – who is often described as the so-called "first modern lesbian".
In 1832 Anne returns to Shibden Hall, the ancestral family home in Halifax where her comically resentful sister Marian (Gemma Whelan), ageing and unreliable father Jeremy (Timothy West) and loving aunt Anne (Gemma Jones) have remained. Anne travels far and often. She studied human anatomy in France, for example, which was wild enough on its own within the rigid gender expectations of the time. Most recently, though, she’s been in Hastings.
Her impactful return to the family estate (which she owns, by the way, not her father) was prompted when Anne discovered that her intended partner had accepted a marriage proposal from a man. In the show, we're given flashbacks to the moment it happened and evidently, Anne was crushed by it. But she's not one to let on to her heartache – not in person. The only thing privy to her innermost thoughts and feelings was her vast collection of diaries in which she wrote in crypthand (a code made of Greek letters and numbers) about her sexual interactions with other women and her true feelings about her identity. It's these diaries that writer and director Sally Wainwright used to craft the series.
Unsurprisingly, Anne was well known in the town for her persistent defying of convention. Though her sexual preference wasn't publicly known per se, it was certainly suspected. Only close family and two of Anne's servants knew of her relationships with women, though. Otherwise, Anne was just known for being "different". "It's all well and good being different in York or Paris, but this is Halifax," Marian moans on her sister's return. You'll smirk as her confused frustration with her confident and commanding sibling simmers in the background of every scene they share.
Outside the home, the attitude towards Anne is different. As a Lister and a landowner, she's well known anyway. But her real fame comes much more from her exuberance and anachronistically masculine image. As visibly surprised as people are by Anne's actions – be it driving a horse and carriage, personally collecting rent for her vast estate from male tenants, or wearing a top hat and tails – she's not really challenged. Suranne Jones' Anne is well respected and commands attention without necessarily asking for it. She'll stand just a little too close to you as she speaks to you, will stare directly into your eyes for answers and won't think twice about telling you exactly what she thinks. Anne is wealthy, smart, charismatic and ambitious but there's a playful mischief behind her knowing smile. We're invited to be in on the joke, though, every time she turns to break the fourth wall Fleabag-style, raising a coy eyebrow before pursuing something consequential.
It's the look she gives us lot sat on the other side of the screen as she marches onto the neighbouring estate that resonates the most. Anne is on her way to meet Ann Walker, a demure heiress whose social circle hasn't extended beyond her remaining doting family members for years. She's wildly fascinated by our protagonist and as the eight-part series ambles towards a relationship climax that we know is coming (yes, there's a wedding approaching but if you're not already familiar with Lister's life story I'll not ruin it for you now), all we can do is brace and enjoy what unfolds between one of the most commanding characters a period drama has seen in a while, and the unsuspecting people she takes for the ride.
Gentleman Jack starts on Sunday 19th May at 9pm on BBC One