TEXT: Dina Klyuchareva, author of the telegram channel One Oscar For Leo
First episode of "Gentleman Jack" released on HBO - a series about Anna Lister, a wealthy English landowner who lived in the 19th century. She was far from the image of a typical Victorian lady: she wore all black, ran the estate herself, and did the coal business and mountaineering. And she also loved women and did not hide it. Let's talk in more detail about the series and the real story of its main character.
1832, 35-year-old Anna Lister returns to England from a trip to Europe with a broken heart - her lover got married. Eccentric Anna is the main subject of gossip among neighbors and townspeople who call her "Gentleman Jack": instead of ladies' outfits and a cap with ribbons, she wears a man's coat and top hat, and her homosexuality is a local secret of Polichinelle. At home, Anna is waiting for an absent-minded father, an elderly aunt, a grumpy sister and a dilapidated Shibden Hall estate, which the heroine inherited from her deceased childless uncle. The former manager is seriously ill, and Lister is forced to immerse herself in a man's work: collecting payments from her twenty-five land tenants and dealing with current affairs.
In addition, it is discovered that the Shibden Hall area contains significant deposits of coal, which is just in demand in the era of the steam engine. Rolling up the puffy sleeves of her Victorian blouse, Anna gets down to business: skillfully resolves disputes with vassals, deftly suppresses attempts at mensplaining and puts in place boorish competitors, and in the meantime skillfully looks after the pretty and wealthy orphan neighbor Anna Walker. At first, Lister's goals are pragmatic: she wants to get to the Walker state and use it to equip her own coal mines. But soon Anna discovers in Walker the one for whom feelings are more important than public opinion, and truly falls in love with her sympathetic and gentle nature, and their flirting turns into a romantic love story.
Sally Wainwright, the author of the BAFTA award-winning series Happy Valley and Last Tango in Halifax, came up with the idea to film the series based on the biography of Anna Lister. Wainwright's great talent lies in the ability to write believable and multidimensional female characters, whether it is a police officer who tracks down the killer - the father of her own grandson ("Happy Valley"), or an elderly widow who, falling in love, finds that life can be interesting, even if you changed your seventh decade. A native of Yorkshire, Wainwright dearly loves his native place and prefers to shoot his projects in its vicinity in order to introduce the world to the distinctive local culture and peculiarities of the language. Wainwright grew up near the Lister estate, from childhood she heard all kinds of tales about her famous countrywoman and for twenty years had the idea to convey her story to the general public. The chance came in 2016, when the showrunner received a screenwriting grant and decided to use it to deeply research the biography of one of the first famous English lesbians.
The script was based on the real diaries of Anna Lister, who, as it turned out, meticulously documented her life and left behind twenty-six volumes of memoirs of almost four million words. The sixth part of them - stories about sexual experiences Lister - is written using a cipher invented by her from ancient Greek letters and algebraic symbols. For the most revealing details, Anna used euphemisms: she designated sex with the phrase “go to Italy”, called the genitals “queer,” and carefully counted orgasms (both hers and her partners) marked with crosses in the margins.
Many years after Anna's death, the diaries were found by her relative, the antiquary John Lister, and unraveled all the encrypted records. Due to their scandalous nature, friends urged John to destroy the diaries, but he chose to keep them for history and hid them behind the wall panels of the house. During the renovation of the estate, the diaries were again discovered, and in the 80s they were taken up by researcher Helen Whitbread - edited and published in two books. Excerpts from the recordings are quoted in direct text by the serial Lister, periodically breaking the fourth wall and addressing directly to the viewer - this is how the real voice of the heroine herself breaks through the dramatized story.
In Gentleman Jack, Anna is played by the gorgeous English actress Suranna Jones. Thanks to her striking character roles in the popular British TV series Scott and Bailey and Dr. Foster, she is well known in her homeland, but almost unrecognizable outside of it. Participation in an international project is an important step in the career of an actress. “I had no idea what Lister should be on the screen and who could play her. But Syranna came and from the very first take got used to the role. She is just as energetic, witty, courageous and decisive in her judgment,”Wainwright says of working with Jones.
Too visible and charismatic Lister does not fit into the pastoral of the Yorkshire backwater. She moves quickly and lives at a completely different pace - this is also emphasized by the musical setting of the series: modern rhythmic folk, like the heroine, ahead of the era. Lister is diplomatic and insightful: she communicates warmly and sincerely with those who accept her features, but coldly and harshly - with those who are hostile to her. She is impetuous and always in a hurry somewhere - perhaps not to have time to hear the reproaches, whispers and gossip that invariably accompanied her appearance anywhere. Even when her heart breaks to pieces (for example, during the wedding of her beloved with a man), Anna stubbornly holds her back and face.
“She is a mass of contradictions. She was tough, but at the same time, she did not hide her feelings. Reading her diary, you understand that she was an emotional person, vulnerable to the vicissitudes of love and passion, but at the same time she was not afraid to challenge the world and was not ashamed of her true nature. She was greatly offended by other people's insults,”says Sally Wainwright about her heroine.
The complete opposite of the on-screen Anna is her sister Marianne - fussy, anxious and boring, she worries more than anything else about what others will think of her and her sister. She is played by the equally wonderful Gemma Whelan, who is well known to the viewer from the role of Yara Greyjoy in Game of Thrones, much more similar to Anna Lister in character. Interestingly, the role of Aunt Lister is played by Gemma Jones, who already played the same character in the 2010 television movie The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister.
It is known that at that time they often turned a blind eye to lesbian relationships. Many unmarried women lived with companions, and kissing and gentle touching between girlfriends was not frowned upon. The society was much more outraged by the attempts of women to behave "like men" and to take on the responsibilities of the opposite sex. However, Lister simply wanted to enjoy the same freedoms as men: dress in comfortable clothes, have the right to vote and share life with the woman he loves.
It is important that Lister could afford such a lifestyle, primarily due to her financial condition: unlike many, she did not need to look for a wealthy husband to avoid hunger and poverty. Anna was educated, traveled a lot, was interested in anatomy and mountaineering and could always captivate the audience with an amazing story about her adventures. The inhabitants of Halifax said that you should not leave the ladies alone with her - so skillfully she charmed the interlocutors.However, according to Lister's diaries, it becomes clear that the secret of charm lies in banal respect: she just talked with women on equal terms, did not treat them as interior decoration and instilled in them faith in their own value.
Lister lived not without sorrows, but still for her pleasure. In the era of the Regency, when women were ordered to marry as early as possible or live under the wing of an older relative, embroidering with a cross and playing music, Anna boldly stepped over all patriarchal traditions and prejudices. Lister controlled access to her body, managed her condition and increased it, was happily married to her beloved. With her conscious and courageous approach to life, she was two hundred years ahead of not only her time, but, in a sense, ours.