Sally Wainwright, prolific creator of beloved TV shows like “Happy Valley,” “Last Tango in Halifax” and “Scott & Bailey,” was recalling a letter she received after the 2019 debut of her period drama “Gentleman Jack.”
“One of the ones that moved me the most was a woman who become agoraphobic because she was gay and just had felt overwhelmed by the world. And she said after she watched the first episode of ‘Gentleman Jack’ she went out for the first time in years,” Wainwright said in a Zoom interview.
“I set out to entertain people, to amuse people, to tell them a tale. And then you get a letter like that and you change someone’s life,” she marvelled.
To be sure, HBO’s “Gentleman Jack” does entertain and amuse, but its heroine — Anne Lister, dubbed “the first modern lesbian” — has become a queer icon two centuries after she lived and died.
Lister was born in 1791 in Halifax in West Yorkshire, England, just eight kilometres from where Wainwright grew up. Lister was already an unusual woman for her time — well educated, a world traveller, masculine in her style of dress, deeply involved in the management of her family’s estate and in the coal industry — but she also “married” another woman in 1834.
Lister’s sexual orientation might have stayed a well-guarded secret, buried in the coded pages of the voluminous diaries she kept from the time she was 15 until her death at age 49, except that a researcher named Helena Whitbread began to decrypt the journals in the 1980s, publishing a first volume of them in 1988.
It would be safe to say that the popularity of “Gentleman Jack,” which returns for a second season Monday, has spurred a wave of Anne Lister mania since then.
“The whole diary has now been transcribed by fans of ‘Gentleman Jack,’” Wainwright said. “The West Yorkshire Archives started an initiative … because there was such a demand from people trying to access the archives and the fans have actually now transcribed the whole, entire, full between four and five million words of the diary, such is their passion for Anne Lister.”
Wainwright very clearly shares their enthusiasm.
“I just might happily spend the rest of my life reading the journals just because I find it so uplifting and funny, and enjoyable to be with,” she said.
Indeed, as portrayed by English actor Suranne Jones, known for shows such as “Coronation Street,” “Doctor Foster” and “Scott & Bailey,” Lister is a delight: a fiercely intelligent, witty, highly energetic force of nature who doesn’t suffer fools and is too caught up in her various projects to pay any mind to the jibes of the locals. (The show’s title derives from a mocking nickname for Lister.)
If you thought Lister was a dynamo in Season 1 — which dramatized her wooing of and symbolic marriage to heiress Ann Walker, as well as her entry into the coal-mining industry — hang on to your hat. Season 2 portrays Lister pursuing even more ambitious plans for her estate and her livelihood while navigating the difficulties of her relationship with Walker now that they’re past the first blush of romance.
“She’s a slightly different Anne Lister because she has the bravado of the wife with money, and she has the want to expand (the estate), and she has the gusto and the energy. It’s like Anne Lister on speed,” Jones said in a Zoom call with Sophie Rundle, who plays Walker. “She’s already in Season 1 doing everything 20 miles an hour … So I had to find a way of upping my game.
“If there was ever a Season 3, I hope that she just sits down a bit,” Jones laughed.
She’s as enchanted as Wainwright by Lister’s diaries and by her ancestral home, Shibden Hall, now a tourist attraction where the show was partially filmed.
“Sally walked me from Shibden Hall all the way up to where the coal pits were. And we passed all these signs about the child miners and oh, it was extraordinary,” Jones said. “And then they took me to Halifax Library and I held her diary and I read it … It’s fascinating and it’s beautiful. And when Sally puts Anne Lister’s real lines from the diary into my dialogue, it’s like some magic happens because you’re actually saying what she said. And it’s brilliant.”
Rundle, an English actor who’s appeared in hits like “Bodyguard” and “Peaky Blinders,” doesn’t have the same luxury when it comes to Walker, who lived from 1803 to 1854. Most of what people know about her comes from Lister’s writing.
“She really was this invisible figure, which I think is quite heartbreaking, really, considering how extraordinary she was,” Rundle said.
In late 2020, it was discovered that Walker had also left a diary, which covers about a year in her life with Lister, but it’s mainly a travel diary and nowhere near as detailed as Lister’s.
“It’s one of the tragedies of the story that there is nothing else about Ann Walker, who was this extraordinary woman who did this extraordinary thing alongside Anne Lister, but there was a concerted effort by her family to deliberately erase her from history because they were ashamed of her,” Rundle said. “I mean, she didn’t even have a headstone for her grave when we started filming this.
“I think it’s down to Sally and the other amazing historians who’ve sort of pulled her back into the attention of the public, which is where she needs to be because she’s a hero.”
Despite the disapproval of Walker’s family, she and Lister lived together as spouses until Lister’s death, after which Walker, who suffered mental health issues for much of her life, was committed by her relatives to an asylum.
But her and Lister’s defiance of societal norms lives on in “Gentleman Jack.”
“We have to remind ourselves regularly that this is 1834, ’36, and the things that they did, the way that they lived life as openly as they could, the way that Anne Lister built her relationships in society, the way that she, especially in this series, pushes herself to the fore … You start to feel that actually they’re doing it together. They want this life for themselves,” Jones said.
“It’s a beautiful story, not a secondary story. It’s a compelling, intimate, detailed part biopic of these two women, and we are taking gay history and bringing it to the front again,” she added.
“Part of what’s been so extraordinary is that this is a story about two women who meet and fall in love, and you’ve got two gay women at the centre of the story, but it’s also just a really brilliant prime-time period drama,” Rundle said.
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