“Courageous. Authentic. Vulnerable. Fragile. And an utter snob. She was a singular woman,” So goes a list of adjectives Suranne Jones, who plays Anne Lister in the upcoming HBO drama Gentleman Jack, told Refinery29 while defining her character.
Another descriptor that would apply? Completely ahead of her time. Lister, who was born in 1831 in Halifax, England, is most famous for being the first so-called modern lesbian. But she was also an adventurer (she climbed the highest mountain in the Pyrenees); a student (she traveled to Paris to study human anatomy); a savvy landowner (she inherited the 400-acre Shibden Hall in 1826); and an acute businesswoman (she took control of her family’s mines).
And in 1834, Lister did the unthinkable. She married her love, Ann Walker, in a church ceremony. Against the era’s social convention, Lister got what she expressed she’d wanted since her school days: Not a husband, but a wife.
Zoom forward to the year 2019, and the world is finally ready for a poignant, triumphant drama about Lister — as well as the happy ending she’d fought so hard to achieve. Gentleman Jack, which finally premieres on HBO on April 22, was also a hard-won victory.
Creator Sally Wainwright first pitched the idea for a show about the revolutionary woman to the BBC back in 2003. “No one picked up on it at all,” Wainwright recalled to Refinery29. After success with her shows Happy Valley and Last Tango in Halifax, the BBC finally came to Wainwright and asked what show she was interested in creating. Lister had never left her mind. “I really wanted to dramatize this woman and her extraordinary life,” Wainwright said.
Not even two decades had passed since her last round of pitches, but Wainwright was pitching a story about a transgressive lesbian to a different world. “The time is really right for a show like this. The discourse has changed about gender and sexuality. Back then, it would’ve been niche,” Wainwright said.
Luckily for Wainwright, who was given the go-ahead to create an eight-episode first season, Lister had been preparing for her star turn all along. At the time of her death during an ill-fated trip to Russia in 1840, Lister had filled 27 volumes of notebooks, at 300 pages each, amounting to a total of 5 million words. About one fifth of the diaries are written in “crypthand,” a code made of numbers and Greek letters that Lister devised to describe her encounters with women — and there were many encounters.
You’re a human being. Isn’t that beautiful and wonderful? And when you put it like that, of course that’s sexy!
Lister had a tremendous sexual appetite. About 700,000 of her words are dedicated to exploring her sexuality— everything from her Parisian lovers to questions of gender identity to heartbreak at the hands of one great love, Marianna Belcombe, who went on to marry a wealthy man. Lister famously used the letter “x” to stand for shared orgasms. Lister knew who she was: “I love and only love the fairer sex and thus, beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any other love than theirs,” Lister wrote in crypthand on January 29, 1821.
Though Lister only exposed her truest self under the safety of crypthand’s lock-and-key, she was fairly open about her sexuality, which she referred to as her “oddity” in her diaries. Lister’s close relatives knew about her lesbianism, and everyone else speculated.
As depicted in Gentleman Jack, Lister’s presentation – from her all-black clothing to her close “friendships” with women — became the subject of fervent gossip among the mannered class. Her masculine appearance (and insistence on doing business with men) earned her the derogatory nickname “Gentleman Jack.” Lister’s wealth and privilege allowed her the freedom of self-expression, but that freedom was still limited.
Thanks to the diaries’ wealth of details about her daily and emotional life, Lister is the author of her own show. When writing the script, Wainwright consulted the diaries heavily. She even learned crypthand (actress Jones said that she, too, would learn cryptand, should Gentleman Jack be renewed for more seasons). “I wanted to create a portrait of Anne Lister that she might recognize herself,” Wainwright said.
Gentleman Jack starts at a pivotal moment in Lister’s life. After a period of travel, Anne seeks to take on another challenge: Domestic life. On one front, Anne wants to invigorate Shibden’s mines and get rich. On another, she wants to settle down — and choose wisely. Anne pursues a match with callous rationality: Who is wealthy and will make for an adequate companion? “If she was fond of me and manageable,” Lister wrote in 1832, “I think I could be comfortable enough with her.”
Lister’s search led her to Ann Walker (played in the show by a fantastic Sophie Rundle), a shy heiress and orphan who lived on a neighboring estate. The natural next step? Opening Ann to the possibility of love — which, for Anne, a master seductress, wasn’t so hard. She made Ann feel seen.
According to Jones, the key to Lister’s seduction was attention, carefully and meaningfully applied. “It’s saying, ‘You’re beautiful,’ but not talking aesthetically. You’re a human being. Isn’t that beautiful and wonderful? And when you put it like that, of course that’s sexy!”
While Lister eventually got married to Walker, her journals were her lifelong companion, providing a place for real expression in a world that only humored her limited freedom. “She describes her diary as being her best friend,” Jones said. “She lets it out. Then she can dust herself off and get back out there.”
In the show, the diaries are a clever device that further bonds the ahead-of-her-time Lister to a modern audience. Throughout Gentleman Jack, but especially while seducing Walker, she will briefly throw knowing looks directly at the camera. “Sally described the fourth wall breaking to be a diary entry,” Jones said. Behind the fourth wall is us, a sympathetic and understanding audience from the future.
Wainwright is confident that Lister expected her journals would, one day, be read. A few decades after her death, they were. The journals were discovered by her ancestor, John Lister in 1890s Britain. John was gay, which was a crime in the U.K. at the time. Instead of destroying the journals, as his friends suggested, John hid them deeper in the Shibden archive.
They were finally discovered, decoded, and published by Helena Whitbread in the 1980s. The vast importance of the diaries can’t be overstated. Following a Unesco vote in 2011, the journals were added to the UK Memory of the World register. “They’re considered one of the 20 most important documents in history,” Wainwright said. “It’s so poignant that people are only just now realizing how important it is. It makes me quite emotional, thinking about that.”
Now, thanks to Wainwright’s two-decade effort, the diaries are coming to life.