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How ‘Gentleman Jack’ Put the Most Dapper Butch of the 19th Century Onscreen

The real Anne Lister bedded many women, wore male clothing, and felt no shame. Sally Wainwright's HBO series uncovers her fascinating life.

HBO

It’s a rare series that can say so much with a single image. In the poster for “Gentleman Jack,” Sally Wainwright’s rollicking new period comedy for HBO, the actress Suranne Jones stands in half profile, cutting an undeniably intriguing figure. Her hair rests in tight ringlets above the ear, she looks exceedingly smart in her top hat and waistcoat — both black, her color of choice. Her head is cocked to the side, and, turned away from the adoring woman at her side, she offers a cunning smile.

This is Anne Lister, or the TV version of her anyway, and just a few minutes into the first episode of “Gentleman Jack” one thing becomes very clear — there has never been a true life character more worthy of her own TV show.

Born in Halifax, England, in 1791, Anne Lister was a diarist as prolific as Samuel Pepys. That her name is not as well known is not only a function of her sex, but of her sexual proclivities. Lister was a dynamic figure who dressed in men’s undergarments, collected the rents for her family estate long before women got the vote, and wooed and bedded some of 19th century England’s highest society women. Her 4 million word diary, consisting of 24 volumes, is one of 300 documents registered in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Programme, an international archive created to protect the “documentary heritage” of humanity.

A British writer/director best known in the states for her shows “Happy Valley” and “Last Tango in Halifax,” Wainwright has brilliantly condensed this monumental document into eight dynamic hour-long episodes.

“The diary is the most phenomenal document,” said Wainwright during a recent interview. “A sixth of it in a code that she invented in which she recorded her adventures with other women. … She should be as well known as Pepys. You know she was writing at just as interesting a time as Pepys was. Specifically because of her lesbianism she’s been hidden away.”

The extraordinary detail of Lister’s diary went a long way in creating such an engaging, often contradictory character. Jones, best known in England as a lead on Wainwright’s successful “Cagney & Lacey” riff “Scott & Bailey,” had a treasure trove of information about her deeply rich character.

Suranne Jones as Anne Lister

HBO

“She was really dramatic and her diaries really paint that picture and she loved the romance and she was looking for love,” Jones said. “She’s a complex person and Sally [Wainwright] did that brilliantly. When the passion comes out it, all comes out, and then she dusts herself down again, picks herself up, and continues with life because she lives life to the full in every aspect.”

In one scene, Lister will go head to head with a crooked coal magnate, and the next she’ll be sobbing dramatically about a lover’s quarrel. Such extremes make the character complex and also deeply relatable — it’s a subtle blend of contrasting traits that would be difficult to invent.

“I think the drama of her is what’s quite amusing as well,” said Jones. “It’s heartbreaking and funny. But isn’t that life? That’s what Sally does best is paint people at their [most] glorious, with all the flaws…but you have to find a constant within that, and that’s the diary I think.”

Lister recorded every detail of her personal life, right down to her underwear. One of the reasons “Gentleman Jack” feels so authentic is sharp costume design that emphasizes Lister’s masculine dressing choices. Although society required she wear a skirt, she favored black equestrian outfits, and wore men’s garters and braces along with her corset. Jones worked closely with costume designer Tom Pye, primarily a theater and opera designer, to hone Lister’s striking style.

“He showed me lots of paintings and pictures of the time. Some of them looked bizarrely steampunk, in a way. … It’s kind of an equestrian look of the time, which women could wear, but obviously she’s wearing it as an armor,” said Jones. “The fact that she wears black because she says she’s in mourning was wonderful, because she was always going to stick out in the midst of all those frills. [Pye] accentuated all the bonnets and the frills to make my look comfortable and at ease alongside the constraints of what women had to wear back then. I think he pointed it out on purpose so that we could really play with that.”

Jones stomps around the countryside schema with considerable heft. Like Lister, she’s not afraid to throw her weight around. She strides so confidently it’s easy to forget she’s wearing a skirt; the effect of the get-up is that it reads more like a dashing cloak.

“We started with a full male outfit,” said Jones. “Braces, trousers, which she did experiment with when she was younger, but only in private and she pushed boundaries with braces and male underwear. So underneath all of that we have male shoes, male garters, male underwear, but a female corset.”

She fashioned her neckerchiefs in the male way, useful to be able to rip off fervently during a passionate love scene. Jones even went so far as to wear one thing that definitely wouldn’t appear onscreen.

“The perfume that I wore had very woody notes to it,” she said. “We called it the smell of Anne Lister. It was actually a Jo Malone scent.”

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