In The Mix

You Don’t Know Jack

The 19th-century heroine of a persistent producer finally has her story told.

Benji Wilson
  • Suranne Jones as Anne Lister, aka Gentleman Jack

    Joy Brooks/HBO

Anne Lister was so far ahead of her time, it's taken television nearly 200 years to catch up.

"Part of the reason she's not more well-known is because she was gay," according to Sally Wainwright (Happy Valley). "People are becoming more aware of her now, and good! She's such an extraordinary personality. Her whole ethos was that life was for the living. That's why we should celebrate her."

Gentleman Jack, now airing on HBO, is that celebration. The eight-part drama (written by Wainwright, who also served as an executive producer and directed four of the episodes) is set in Halifax, West Yorkshire, in 1832, as the Industrial Revolution gathers steam.

Lister, a landowner, is determined to transform the fate of her faded ancestral home, Shibden Hall, by reopening its coal mines and marrying well. And by marrying, she meant marrying a woman.

"There was no word for lesbian back then," says Suranne Jones (Doctor Foster), who plays Lister. "People just found her odd. They nicknamed her Gentleman Jack, but they didn't really know what they were saying by that."

A prodigious diarist, Lister wrote volumes that run to more than 4 million words. Many of her more explicit entries are written in a complex code that was only broken in the 1980s. But with her innermost thoughts revealed, Lister — polymath, mountaineer, traveler, lover — comes across as a preeminent Victorian.

"She was brilliant beyond her time and so modern," Jones says. "You can't help but ask, 'Why do we not know about Anne Lister?'"

That's the question Wainwright has been asking since she became aware of Lister in the 1990s.

Having grown up in Halifax and visited Shibden Hall as a child, she'd learned about Lister, but wanted to know more. "She was like a secret people kept," Wainwright says. Twenty years ago, she decided to write a television series about her heroine, but when she went to networks, her passion project couldn't find a berth.

"I think it was a combination of Anne not being a household name, me not being a household name, and the nature of the material: who she was and the fact that she got married to another woman," Wainwright says.

"In 2003, when I first pitched the idea, getting married to another woman wasn't very cool. Now it's very much part of our consciousness that gender and sexuality are much more complex than has been articulated before."

Gentleman Jack was shot in Shibden Hall itself, a raggedy pile of Tudor beams, bluff stonework and Lister's own additions, like the library tower she built for reading.

The setting is authentic to the period, but the storytelling is, like its protagonist, decidedly unusual. In Wainwright's zesty script, Jones sometimes breaks the fourth wall and talks to the camera, House of Cards–style. Many shots are Steadicam, to keep up with a strutting Lister as she powers down corridors and through archways.

"Getting her walk right was crucial," Jones says, "because she was always on the move, always pressing on to that next thing with extraordinary energy. The rest of the world had to try and keep up."

Viewers can catch up on Gentleman Jack on HBO Now, HBO GO or HBO on demand.

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 3, 2019