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It's About Time We Meet 'Gentleman Jack,' and HBO is Introducing Her
April 22, 2019  | By David Hinckley  | 2 comments

Add Anne Lister to the roster of fascinating women you probably never heard of.

It’s not your fault. Lister lived and died almost two centuries ago, and she was not a politician or an artist or the holder of a public position.

She was, rather, a staunch feminist and an unapologetic lesbian at a time when both those notions scandalized much of the world in which she lived.

Her story and her oversized personality resurface now in Gentleman Jack, an HBO series whose first eight episodes premiere Monday at 10 p.m. ET.

Lister was born into the middle range of British aristocracy, and from early in life she used those means to travel around the world. She was brilliant and infinitely curious, picking up skills in every field from medicine to finance.

In an age when women were supposed to be domesticated and subservient, Lister was neither. She was widely known in her West Yorkshire area for what were discreetly described as masculine characteristics, which she saw no reason women could not also employ.

We pick up Lister’s story in 1832, which was rather late in her life. She had just turned 40 and had returned to the family home, Shibden Hall, after another extensive round of European travel.

She’s initially not all that thrilled to be there, having found she doesn’t enjoy life rooted to any spot. But with her father’s health failing and earlier generations growing old, she sees an opportunity to step in and run the place. That does appeal to her, so she unpacks her trunks and our part of her adventure begins.

Suranne Jones plays Lister (top and above), strikingly. Her severe exterior, underscored by a period hairstyle modern eyes will not see as flattering, gradually fades just enough for us to see a wide range of emotional nuance.

To much of the world, her default mode is blunt. She has no hesitation in describing most of the people she meets as dull and stupid, though she has a graceful façade through which she can also charm them.

While she seems anything but sentimental, she quietly mourns the death of a favorite horse. She also seems to have decided that after a life of torrid short-term relationships – the term “hookup” was not yet in widespread use – she would like a life partner with whom she could share her journeys.

Enter Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle, left, with Jones), a sweet and introverted fellow heiress from a nearby estate.

This romantic quest, coupled with Anne’s management style at Shibden Hall, sparks considerable ancillary drama in the lives of her exasperated sister Marianne (Gemma Whelan), her sweet Aunt Anne (Gemma Jones) and the family posse that seems to dwell in every British estate home.

Just as the real-life Anne commandeered much of the oxygen in every room she entered, the same holds true with Gentleman Jack – which is, by the way, the mostly affectionate name the local villagers gave to Anne Lister. It’s her story, and Suranne Jones brings a dominating presence to it.

The real-life Lister kept a meticulous and, at times, explicit diary, ultimately writing some four million words. Those pages form the sturdy foundation on which creator/writer/director Sally Wainwright builds Gentleman Jack.

Periodically, Anne addresses the viewer directly, enabling Wainwright to flesh out the story with Anne’s own words.

Gentleman Jack doesn’t play as either a lesbian or a feminist drama, though it’s both. It’s more a “why not?” drama, tracking the work of a woman who saw no reason to follow rules that were offensive and made no sense.

She was a rebel with a cause. It’s good to meet her.

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I thought the first episode of this show was great fun! I look forward to watching the rest of this series.
Apr 25, 2019   |  Reply
Refreshing of Jones, after Doctor Foster. While Doctor Foster was immensely popular for many, I felt it was difficult to watch and I ultimately did not finish the series.
My concern was a dramatization of an out of control woman. Her selfishness, coupled with the worst behavior, including as a parent, set women's progress in a horrible light.
That she is portraying an early feminist will be a relief.
(Apologies to those who loved Doctor Foster.)
Apr 22, 2019   |  Reply
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