HBO's 'Gentleman Jack' Brings Britain's "First Modern Lesbian" To Swaggering Life

6 min
Suranne Jones stars as Anne Lister—sometimes called the first modern lesbian—in Gentleman Jack. (Aimee Spinks/HBO)

HBO's new period drama, Gentleman Jack, is set in the 1830s and tells the extraordinary story of Anne Lister: landowner, businesswoman, mountaineer, and sometimes called "the first modern lesbian." Lister came from a wealthy family in Halifax, England, and began recording her love affairs with women in coded entries in her diary. Eventually she would live openly with her neighbor Ann Walker as a couple. Those explicit diaries remained a secret until the 1980s—and in 2011 they were named by UNESCO as a pivotal document in British history. The HBO adaptation looks at Lister's relationship Ann Walker and her defiant embrace of her sexual orientation. Suranne Jones stars as Anne Lister—she says it's become possible to tell Lister's story now, because we finally have the language to discuss gender and sexuality more openly. "So I just feel like this is the right time to tell her story in the full-bodied way that it needs to be told."


Interview Highlights

On preparing to play Anne's complexities

Sometimes when you get a part, you're almost cooked, you're ready to go ... but with this, both me and [writer and director Sally Wainwright] felt like I was a work in progress, and I was going to have to put a lot of work in ... I was able to visit Halifax library and actually take out one of Anne Lister's original diaries and read that for myself, which was a real emotional experience, because I'm touching the paper which she had her hands all over, and Sally was able to read the code to me, over my shoulder, which was again extraordinary ... the code itself, parts of the diary still hadn't been decoded, so it was being decoded especially for us as we filmed, which was really exciting. We'd get an email, and it was kind of like live, as we were filming scenes in the end, where we were getting pieces of information that had never been seen before ... we got to film in Shibden Hall, which was her actual house, so the whole experience was magical; I felt like she was with us every step of the way. But the experience of that really allowed her to get into my bones every single day on set.

On Anne's physicality

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A lot of the work that Sally's done over the eight episodes are direct from the diaries. A lot of the words that I speak, Sally has used, not verbatim but she's really worked them into the way she writes her dialogue. And there's pieces of information that we have—she walked fast, and she walked upright. She was mistaken for her masculinity. She had a low voice, she looked like an oddity. She was very striking. She always wore black, in mourning for an ex-girlfriend that she lost to a man, to a marriage. So by the time we meet her, she's been wearing black for 16 years. And she was fiercely intelligent, so we wanted to tell the story of her intelligence through her physicality as well, which is kind of the big hand gestures and the tapping; she checks out of scenes before other people do, because she's already on to the next thing ... and she hard to be larger than life, she had to be a presence that anyone who knows the diaries can feel it when they read it off the page, and I really wanted to encapsulate that on screen.

On Anne's self-certainty

Sally described her to me as having a very healthy opinion of herself, a very healthy opinion of life, excited by life, wanted to live life to the full. And she was true to her nature. She never wavered from wanting to, in her words again, "love, and only love the fairer sex." She felt like it was her god-given nature to do that. She was authentic in that way, and she had no blueprint, there were no communities. Lesbian wasn't a word then. But she just was striking in the way that she knew exactly who she wanted to be, and pushed on and lived in that way.

On what we should take from her story today

I think whether you're part of the LGBTQIA community or not, Anne Lister is trail-blazing, she's life-affirming, she's uplifting, she's courageous. And she believes that everyone has a voice and deserves to be themselves and to speak. And I think in this climate, we need more stories like that.


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This story was edited for radio by Hiba Ahmad and Lynn Kim, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit NPR.

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