In 2002, the BBC premiered a three-part adaptation of Sarah Waters’s novel Tipping the Velvet, the rare show that managed to transcend the feverish, tabloid-stoked anticipation of its transgressive elements. Billed as the most explicit lesbian drama in British television history, Tipping the Velvet told the story of a Whitstable oyster girl, Nan (Rachael Stirling), who falls in love with a male impersonator, Kitty (Keeley Hawes), and ends up embroiled in a Victorian subculture of sapphism and exploitation. Compared with how abjectly the miniseries was hyped (“Scenes in the drama involve crude sex toys, swearing and sex acts,” the Daily Mail gasped), what actually aired was a playful, poignant coming-of-age story about sexuality hiding in plain sight. Tipping, Waters wrote in 2018, was itself exploited for the purposes of titillation, and yet the fact that it was adapted at all was close to miraculous, given the dearth of lesbian stories in mainstream culture.
A lot has changed since 2002, which is maybe why HBO’s new eight-part drama Gentleman Jack, co-produced with the BBC, feels like such an oddity. Unlike Tipping the Velvet, which was fiction—an effort to forge space for queerness in a time and a literary landscape where it almost never exposed itself—Gentleman Jack is based on the diaries of a real woman, a landowner and an industrialist named Anne Lister who had what’s often interpreted as Britain’s first lesbian marriage. Born in 1791 in the north of England, Lister dressed in masculine clothing, and chronicled her romantic and sexual relationships with women in her diaries, the most scandalous entries of which were written in a code of her own invention. In 1834, she participated in a commitment ceremony with Ann Walker, another woman of independent wealth, and the two lived and traveled together until Lister’s death.
Lister is an extraordinary character—a woman who found ways to thwart every restriction that society imposed upon her. Forbidden to attend university, she pursued independent medical study with a surgeon in Paris. Banned from loving freely, she conducted romantic relationships with women as brazenly as she dared, although the coded nature of her diary conveys her awareness of the stakes of discovery. Those stakes, though, are largely absent from Gentleman Jack, an arch, jaunty series in which Lister only seems to win. Played with entrancing charisma and poise by Suranne Jones, Lister is a strange kind of anachronism, a wry 19th-century boss with breezy fearlessness and Fleabag-esque asides to the camera. “I’m always all right,” she tells a character in one scene, and the odd thing is that she is—barring some minor pangs of heartbreak and one violent altercation, Jones’s Lister is unsinkable in both spirits and status.
In theory, Lister’s indomitability makes her the perfect candidate for dramatization. In practice, though, something’s missing. How can a character be bold and transgressive when so few obstacles seem to be in the way of her desires? Gentleman Jack is adapted by Sally Wainwright, the superb British screenwriter behind Happy Valley and To Walk Invisible, a two-hour drama about the lives of the Brontë sisters. What tends to tie her work together is a setting (the northern English county of Yorkshire), and a commitment to writing strong, nonconformist female characters. With Lister’s diaries, which were decoded and published starting in 1988, Wainwright has intimate access to Lister’s mind. And yet something gets lost in translation. As written in Gentleman Jack, Lister is a modern HBO heroine transposed into a conventional costume drama, ambitious and dynamic and protected by privilege.
In part, this is a tonal problem and a structural one. There’s no earthly reason for Gentleman Jack to be stretched out over eight episodes, given that its heroine finds her soulmate in Episode 1 and then has to distract herself for seven more hours with a subplot about a coal mine and a vague mystery about a reckless horse rider. The series embraces all the trappings of late-’90s period dramas, meaning that there are infinite shots of opulently wallpapered drawing rooms and characters stepping out of carriages. Every time Lister walks anywhere, which she does frequently, the camera captures her furiously pacing through cobbled streets or past pigsties to brisk musical accompaniment (the score, like the opening credits of corsets being laced and buttons being fastened, feels gauche and retro).
Rather than focus on the heartbreaks and betrayals of Lister’s early romantic experiences, Wainwright writes Lister as a consummate seducer in midlife, a debonair rake who pursues women intently. After a single tea with the wealthy and depressed Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle), Lister resolves to stay in Shibden and “endeavor to make wealthy little Miss Walker my wife,” a mission that’s written almost as a kind of grooming. First, Lister spends hours talking with Walker. Then she touches her, clutching her hand and moving closer to her on the sofa. Finally, she asks provocative questions that sexualize their dynamic. Gentleman Jack mostly shies away from explicit love scenes, but an early conversation between Lister and Walker has a charged energy for all its chasteness: As the intimacy between the two characters grows, the camera moves closer and closer into their faces, until their mouths and eyes seem to occupy the whole of the screen.
Gentleman Jack presents Lister as someone who achieved uncommon goals through force of personality alone. She simply decides to set up a coal mine, or to marry Walker—both impossible feats for women in the 1830s—and then makes it so. There are a handful of scenes in which male characters underestimate Lister because she’s a woman, but they’re quickly shown up for their idiocy. Moreover, by the time viewers meet Lister at the beginning of the series, she’s in her early 40s and has no hesitation whatsoever about who she is. “I love, and only love, the fairer sex,” she tells Walker. “These feelings haven’t deviated or wavered since childhood. I was born like this, and I act as my God-given nature dictates.”
These scenes have an empowering quality to them and a sense of uplift. But it’s hard to craft a drama around a person who seems to be invulnerable. Lister’s family appears to accept her sexual orientation without protest; her servants raise genteel eyebrows at her overnight visitors but squash any local gossip. As a landowner and a landlord, she’s insulated by the fact that there are more farmers requiring her land than there are acres to rent to them. Unlike, say, Tipping the Velvet, which had an acute grasp not only of the real danger of exposure but also of the socioeconomic inequality of Victorian England, Gentleman Jack girds itself with a more positive, palatable attitude. The pity is that Anne Lister, a truly audacious, difficult, and groundbreaking woman, ends up with a biographical portrait that’s anything but.