It is a truth universally acknowledged that a dashing woman in possession of an untapped coal pit must be in want of a wife. Or so it goes in Sally Wainwright’s sly, rollicking Gentleman Jack, HBO’s period drama that draws on (and expands) Austenian rom-com innuendo to adapt the story of real-life Georgian Era figure Anne Lister, popularly described as “the first modern lesbian.”
Wainwright, the virtuoso behind Netflix’s dark thriller Happy Valley, has devised a new kind of Byronic heroine for this series: a female rake, equal parts brooding, arrogant and sprightly, who wishes to marry for fortune as much as she does for love. And in the final moments of the first season, which aired last night, Wainwright also reinvents the archetypical sweeping declaration that culminates most literary romances, gifting viewers a satiating finale that helps redraw the parameters for historical love stories. Gentleman Jack is not just a superlative example of queer inclusivity on television, but perhaps the most epically romantic TV series of 2019 thus far, period.
Historical romances between women make up a burgeoning genre in mainstream culture, from the Victorian Era novels of contemporary author Sarah Waters to recent and upcoming films such as The Handmaiden, The Favourite, 2019 Cannes sensation Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Vita and Virginia and Ammonite. Period dramas at large are also thriving as much as ever; just look at the fervor for the new Downton Abbey film, bowing in September, or the British romance parody The Nests of Netherfield on Netflix’s Tuca and Bertie — practically a porn stand-in for mild-mannered Bertie.
And thrillingly, on last night’s Gentleman Jack, our romantic leads found union in an antiquarian setting that might have been their undoing had they been men. (England’s sodomy laws never included female-female sexual accord, likely because the possibility never even entered the legislators’ minds.)
Over the course of Gentleman Jack‘s first season, set in 1832, we come to know serial monogamist Anne just as she’s returned to her ancestral estate in Yorkshire following another wrenching breakup with a “companion” who chose to marry a man. Possessing a shrewd intellect and boisterous wit, history’s Lister was a landowner, a business woman, a seducer of women, an amateur anatomist, a thrill-seeker who donned an all-black, masculinized wardrobe. Wainwright is able to embroider this minutiae into the series because Lister kept a coded diary that detailed her travels, her studies, her industrial ventures and her forbidden sexual conquests.
Treated as a curiosity, Lister lived unlike any other woman of her day, and on Gentleman Jack, Suranne Jones (Doctor Foster) masterfully plays her with a swaggering vigor and raw vulnerability that makes you love Anne, despite her libertine selfishness. (Jones’ upper-crust midlands accent and crisp timbre swathe you like an autumn day.) Anne just wants to finally settle down with a wife, a woman whom she can adore privately while living in seeming chaste companionship publicly. (Don’t worry, her weaponized charisma mostly keeps gossips at bay.) When she intuits that her emotionally fragile neighbor, an affluent but melancholic blonde poppet named Anne Walker (Sophie Rundle), has a schoolgirl-like fascination with her, you can practically envision a grinning wolf eyeing a lonely lamb.
At first, predatory Anne sees Miss Walker as another “straight” woman to conquer — after all, her true love, Marianna (Lydia Leonard), is off married to some old codger. But when Miss Walker’s mental health begins to deteriorate, and she admits a cruel widower raped her and is now blackmailing her into marriage, our Anne swells into full-on hero mode to protect her newfound pearl.
The truth is, Miss Walker tempers her, and Anne can’t help but be bewitched, even if the young woman’s weak will vexes her. After proposing marriage and being rejected multiple times by her fearful lover, Anne eventually accepts that Miss Walker needs to live with her sister in Scotland to recover from her psychological episode, so she absconds off to Denmark to forget the affair. Imagine spending Pride and Prejudice with Mr. Darcy as the protagonist and learning to love him in all his cantankerous sweetness from the start.
The finale climaxes with the surprise reunion between the lovers, after Anne is forced to return to Shibden Hall to say goodbye to her dying aunt and Miss Walker escapes the clutches of her grim in-laws. The women both find themselves in the dimming summer afternoon atop a green hillside, the typically dapper Anne sporting straggly hair and a smelly black overcoat following her arduous journey.
Their meeting feels serendipitous, the audience never expecting the formerly meek Miss Walker to assert her autonomy with controlling family members. (If anything, you could have imagined Anne swashbuckling her way north on a rescue mission.) As Anne stands upon the hill, stooped and defeated following the flooding of her coal pit, which she risked the deed for her home to fund, Miss Walker ascends like an angel in blue taffeta. “Good lord,” Anne utters, shocked. They each reveal the tragedy of errors that kept them apart — destroyed letters, a failed suicide attempt and the hours they thought of one another. “You know, if you asked me to marry you again, I wouldn’t say no…. I love you, Anne. I’m in love with you. I always have been.” Who’s rescuing whom?
As the violins swell, the women kiss passionately — a rapscallion and her damsel — and the camera sweeps above them, overlooking the lush and verdant valleys. Rivaling the great love scenes of miniseries past, the moment is no different, emotionally or visually, from any story where a twinkling English rose finally secures love with her gruff nobleman. The nobleman here just happens to be woman.
As it turns out, Gentleman Jack was a true marriage plot all along. Not a tale of catastrophic longing or bury your gays/death by lesbianism, but a good, old-fashioned love story. In the denouement, the women secretly take the sacrament together during a Sunday church ceremony, and as they walk off in the blistering sunshine, Miss Walker sweetly chides her bride to put away her pocket watch, aka the 19th century smartphone. The moment emphasizes how easy they are together, in spite of their differences in temperament, a stark contrast to Anne’s stormy friendship with her jealous ex Marianna.
You suspect Anne could never be with a woman like herself — all brash braggadocio — and that’s probably a good thing. Every rock-star couple needs a rock and a star.