Gentleman Jack: A Sexy, Swaggering Period Drama

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Bold, immaculately tailored, and popular with the ladies; in many ways, Anne Lister is the perfect gentleman. With her swaggering walk and decisive manner, Anne cuts a dashing figure as she strides through 19th century Halifax. But our Gentleman Jack – as the world is at great pains to remind her – is a woman. She can’t escape the bonds of femininity without causing a scandal.

Fortunately for all of us watching the BBC’s latest period drama (now available on HBO), Anne was never one to be led by convention.

When we first meet our Gentleman Jack, she is at something of a loose end. Miss Vere Hobart, described as “a sort of… companion” to her, has accepted the proposal of a male suitor – and broken Anne’s heart in the process. So Anne returns to Shibden Hall, where she struggles against the confines of home and family to make plans that will cause a scandal across the county. She collects her own rents from tenants, oversees renovation work, and opens a coal mine. And Anne intends to find a woman to share this life with her – a long-term “…companion.”

Anne has crossed seas, traveled continents. She has lived and loved much as she drives a carriage: at breakneck pace. Now in her 40s, Gentleman Jack is ready to settle down. Enter Miss Ann Walker, an English rose of an heiress who is ripe for the plucking.

When the casting was announced, I will admit to having some doubts. Suranne Jones is not how I had pictured this lesbian Lothario. But the magnetism she brings to the role is irresistible – to viewers, and Miss Walker. Those brief seconds when Jones glances towards the camera and quirks an eyebrow express more about the art of same-sex seduction than a well-thumbed volume of Best Lesbian Erotica. Gentleman Jack has serious game.

And the sex scenes. THE SEX SCENES! They’re steamy, sensual fun. If you’re going to watch Gentleman Jack, take note: this is not for viewing with parents, siblings, or relatives of any kind. The BBC has somehow managed to cast off that traditional British repressiveness for long enough to do Anne Lister’s love life proper justice. After pleasuring one partner, Anne pauses to wipe her fingers dry on a blanket before checking the time on a handsome pocket watch. For this moment alone, Gentleman Jack will go down in lesbian television history as surely as Anne will go down on her Miss Walker.

I was initially surprised to find such frankness about sex in a period drama. Then again, the BBC broke major ground with two Sarah Waters adaptations: Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith (both complete with sex scenes). These Sapphic classics aired in 2002 and 2005 respectively. The BBC was the first major broadcasting company to adapt literary lesbian romps for television, making shows like Gentleman Jack possible.

This is not, as they say, the BBC’s first rodeo. Gentleman Jack is filmed with a confidence and precision that perfectly matches its protagonist. Heavy petting is balanced with humor. One of the funniest moments is when the neighborhood busybody tries to stop any lesbian happenings, only to walk in on Anne with her hand up the skirts of a breathless, flushed Miss Walker. Instead of feeling shamed by this intruder’s scrutiny, the two lovers laugh like naughty schoolchildren. It’s one of many beautiful moments of intimacy.

Just as satisfying to watch are Anne Lister’s many standoffs with men. A forthright woman, she will easily stare down any fellow who stands in her way. Gentleman Jack is also a fierce negotiator, and it’s a joy to witness her get the better of bullies who assume they will get their own way by virtue of being male. True to history, Anne Lister makes a formidable opponent.

Like a lot of lesbian television, Gentleman Jack focuses on the lives of two very wealthy women. Anne Lister’s extensive travels, love affairs, and defiance of convention are only made possible by her money. In subtle ways, it is made clear to viewers that there were far more choices open to women of Anne’s social class than the servant who dresses her in those dapper looking suits each morning.

Yet Gentleman Jack is an important piece of storytelling. As well as being thrilling to watch, this series acknowledges that lesbians have been around long before there was a word to define our sexuality. By sharing the life of Anne Lister, the BBC is educating people about a key figure in herstory. Gentleman Jack was one of the first women known to have been publicly out: it is right that we keep her memory so vividly alive.