For queer historians, Anne Lister’s decoded diaries, dubbed "the Dead Sea Scrolls of lesbianism", are incontrovertible proof that, pre-1900, women in love did more together than tremulously touch hands and discuss improving literature.
For Gentleman Jack writer Sally Wainwright, Lister was a woman ahead of her time in a man’s world. For HBO and the BBC, she is evidently good business, and for the viewing public she’s good entertainment – Gentleman Jack has just been renewed for a second series.
Wainwright first pitched the show in 2003, with no takers. In the transformed cultural landscape of 2019, Gentleman Jack seems like a story whose time has come. The series finale, which aired last night, sees Anne Lister (Suranne Jones) marry troubled heiress Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle). It’s a fast-paced, emotionally driven romp of an episode – much better than the rest of the series, which often gets bogged down in uninspired subplots and interminable conversations about coal mining.
In depicting Lister and Walker repurposing an ordinary church service as their commitment ceremony, the marriage scene shows queer happiness surviving as it has always had to: secretly, conspiratorially, subsisting sometimes on as little as a glance, or hands barely brushing where no one else can see. If only Wainwright hadn’t felt the need to juxtapose this lesbian wedding with a heterosexual one, or show Lister and Walker descending into old-married-couple bickering, as if to say: 'Gays! They’re just like us!'
Still, it might tug even the most jaded queer heartstrings to see Lister and Walker’s wildly romantic kiss, out in the open, against a vista of England’s greenest and most pleasant land (which, in the 1830s, will soon be choked with industrial dust from the likes of Miss Lister’s new coal pit). It must be some kind of victory to have a gay story front and centre in a primetime historical drama, instead of relegated to a furtive subplot. And Gentleman Jack really is the quintessential Sunday night British period drama, crossing off every square on the bingo card: dubious class politics, nostalgia for an idealised lost past, horror at a distantly barbaric past, light bodice-ripping. The show has more in common with Poldark or Downton Abbey than it does with the subversive, arthouse lesbian period dramas being made for the big screen, like The Favourite or The Handmaiden. This is progress in the same way the Greggs vegan sausage roll was progress: it lets a minority social group share in a stodgy, mediocre, yet widely beloved national institution which was previously closed off to them.
It might tug even the most jaded queer heartstrings to see Lister and Walker’s wildly romantic kiss, out in the open.
It’s worth interrogating the fact that the British public have so eagerly lapped up the story of a high-powered business lesbian who just wants to settle down and monogamously marry, whose sex with women is all soft-focus, fully clothed, under the covers. This stands in stark comparison with Lister’s diaries, which relate in blush-inducing detail how many fingers went where and how many orgasms were had by each of her many lovers. Wainwright said she didn’t want to write another youthful coming-out narrative, which is admirable (though of course it’s anachronistic to apply the 20th-century framework of the closet to Lister’s lesbian existence). But her self-possessed, 40-year-old heroine who knows she was Born This Way is, conveniently, also living a more palatable life for heterosexual viewers than when she was sowing her wild oats. With Lister’s position as landowner, Gentleman Jack presents a troubling vision of #GirlBoss landlord and humble tenant as equal parties – almost family – who can make a potentially unjust system workable by treating 'fairly' with each other. This regressive fantasy of a society where everyone knows their place and is happy in it has never existed, and certainly didn’t exist in the hub of revolutionary ferment that was the north of England in the early 19th century.
Despite all this, it is profoundly refreshing to see lesbianism depicted, and to such a wide audience, as something that makes women better: stronger, more self-assured, less isolated, less in thrall to an all-powerful patriarchy. This sort of storytelling – frustrating one moment, gratifying the next – is probably what queer viewers can increasingly expect to see on screen, as our community’s history begins to enter the cultural mainstream.