Based on the real-life diaries of Anne Lister from the 1800s, the show Gentleman Jack tells the salacious story of Anne Lister and Ann Walker, two women who fell in love and were married amidst the onslaught of homophobia in 19th century England. This show went largely unnoticed by American audiences when it was on-air back in 2019, then again for season 2 in 2022 post-Covid delays. The character of Anne Lister is one of the most self-confident and headstrong protagonists you can find in modern television. This is largely due to the fact that she’s practically an out lesbian who dresses masculinely and rejects rigid gender roles forced upon her because she’s a woman. She’s often treated as inferior to the men she attempts to work with in order to run her family business. Lister is also the subject of constant gossip due to her romantic entanglements with a string of women throughout Europe. Throughout the show, her character goes on a journey rich with love, betrayal, sacrifice, as well as copious amounts of heartbreak as she navigates her way through the unrelenting patriarchy that is the 19th century, all while falling in love with her wife.
The real history of Anne Lister and Ann Walker is documented through about four million words written in Lister’s diaries. Many of her diaries were found written in coded messages, but they detailed the adventures of “the first modern lesbian,” as she was later called. The show is narrated through her diary entries and takes the audience through a mainly linear form of storytelling with some fourth wall breakage throughout each episode as Lister often talks to the audience. The show does a good job at showing how even if someone is confident and unafraid to be queer in this time period, they will still face significant pushback the more people know, and that can still be scary even if you are above it all, as Anne Lister is. Her partner, Ann Walker, shows how genuinely scary it was to be in a lesbian relationship back then, with horror stories of gay men being executed due to sodomy laws. Lister and Walker almost work as foils of each other as they show the different realities of living in a society and time period that’s oppressive in many different ways. Through sexism, homophobia, classism, misogyny, etc.—all well-known aspects of the 19th century—Gentleman Jack dramatizes real stories of how queer people managed to fall in love, get married, and be as happy as they could be through the sheer amount of adversity and dangerous odds stacked against them from their society.