OHow can a 19th century landowner teach modern British women about their sexuality? Rather a lot, it turns out – especially if that landowner is Anne Lister. The ‘first modern lesbian’, as some consider her, has been an inspirational figure since her diaries, detailing relationships with women, were decoded and published in the 1980s. But, thanks to Sally Wainwright’s period drama , Gentleman Jack – in which Lister is played by the inimitable Suranne Jones – news of the Yorkshirewoman’s radical ways has spread like wildfire, turning the lives of many women upside down in the process.
As the show’s second series comes to an end, a new documentary, Gentleman Jack Changed My Life, takes a closer look at the show’s most dedicated fans. For some, Jones’ description of Lister as a remarkably assertive woman gave them the confidence to come out to friends and family members; for others, the series has helped them make sense of their sexuality after years — even decades — of confusion.
Yvonne, 64, from Blackpool, is one of the women whose life was irrevocably changed by Gentleman Jack when the show debuted in 2019. From the moment she noticed “the involvement of woman to woman” in the trailer, she says, her “antennae went up. I just thought it was because I like strong women and I love period dramas. So I was like, ‘I have to watch this.'” In the past, she had been a fan of The L Word and loved lesbian historical fiction by Tipping the Velvet author Sarah Waters, but that wasn’t until she saw her again. A Gentleman Jack scene in which Lister and his partner, Ann Walker, declare their love for each other atop a cliff, which Yvonne began to suspect her fascination with the subject matter might run deeper.
“I thought, ‘You’re getting too interested’ – that question came up.” Below the YouTube video was a link to another woman’s coming out story. “It could have been my life. It was like a ceiling had crumbled and I couldn’t pretend anymore. I thought, Oh my God, Anne Lister, I hate you – because she kept not attract me.
The documentary follows Yvonne as she comes out to her adult children, whose reaction she describes as “unbelievable – they took it in their stride, really”. More shocking to them, she said, was the fact that their usually very private mother had been involved in the documentary. Yet, despite being nervous about the show – “I have no desire to be on screen, I’m like a rabbit in the headlights!” – Yvonne is optimistic that the film will have a positive impact on others. “I hope this helps someone and they don’t have to hate themselves or go through the turmoil this can bring.”
For Sami, 35, from Manchester, another of the documentary’s subjects, the idea that Gentleman Jack was a period drama rooted in historical fact made all the difference. “I was like, ‘Wow, she had the guts to do that back then.’ It resonated – just to be me.After coming out to her mother in her early twenties, the lawyer then went back to the closet, leaving her mother to believe that her daughter’s sexuality was “only ‘a phase’. Not normally one to commit to watching a TV show – “I’m pretty hyperactive, so for me to sit down and watch a full series should be pretty good!” – Sami became Discussions with her mother about her sexuality had been “explosive over the years,” she says, but the show, which they watched together, gave Sami the confidence to be assertive. allowed us to start talking about these uncomfortable issues I don’t think my mom is 100% [onboard]but I feel better able to talk to her about it now, whether she likes it or not.
Chichi is in her early twenties and had already come out to her mother before Gentleman Jack aired. But the show gave her the impetus to tell her father, and later her grandparents – an announcement the film chronicles to heartwarming effect. Already aware of Lister’s importance thanks to a Sue Perkins documentary from 2015 and a one-off BBC drama from 2010, Chichi looked forward to Wainwright’s version. Although she has watched many queer dramas before, it was Gentleman Jack who really changed her perspective on coming out. While other shows tended to be niche – many of them crowdfunded or only available on YouTube – the fact that this show clearly had a large target audience in mind was validation: it was “mainstream on the BBC at peak time on Sunday, which was amazing”. Chichi thinks the period drama element has also helped — because no one lives like Lister anymore, its story and setting have become oddly inclusive, making it “accessible to everyone in their own way.”
The fact that Gentleman Jack is set in the 1800s was significant for other reasons as well. Before watching the show, Chichi wasn’t sure if she should come out to her grandparents. “We were so close and I thought I didn’t want to rock the boat,” she said. But the reaction of Lister’s loved ones on the show, despite the intolerant times they lived in, motivated Chichi to be totally transparent. “I loved how Anne’s relationship with her aunt was portrayed, because she was always so supportive, and I thought, ‘I really do. If her aunt could be so supportive back then, there is hope.
Lister’s strength was also contagious. Seeing that level of self-control on screen “helped me feel more comfortable with myself and cared less about what people think. Anne Lister was unapologetically herself at a when everyone was against her – if she could do it then, I can definitely do it now. She was such a strong person,” Chichi says.
Yvonne agrees that it was the show’s grounding in reality – coupled with Lister’s ability to know herself in a world that had “no language” for her desires – that proved most inspiring. “You can’t understand anyone living that shameless life back then. It upset me,” she says. One thing that held Yvonne, who is Mormon, was how Lister handled the conflict between his attraction to women and his faith. She cites a scene in which Walker worries that such desires are “evil.” “Anne Lister stood up and said, ‘I’m perfectly made as God intended, I don’t apologize for that.’ That’s what crossed my soul. And I thought, ‘She’s right – whatever’s going on with me, that’s how God wanted me to be.’ »
Gentleman Jack not only helped these women understand each other better, he also helped them make like-minded friends. “If you ask someone if they like Gentleman Jack, you can tell a lot about their reaction,” Sami says. “Do they accept? So I used it as a tester – it worked fine. Yvonne, meanwhile, says the show opened up a whole new world to her, after meeting fellow Gentleman Jack enthusiasts from around the world at Anne Lister’s birthday week, a celebration in Anne Lister’s hometown. Lister, Halifax.
Yvonne is still reeling from the transformative effect Gentleman Jack has had on her life. “It’s so weird because I was so embarrassed. I thought, at my age, it’s ridiculous, you should have known that years ago. But it was like a puzzle piece falling into place. place. I feel more centered, more me than I’ve ever felt. And it took a program to shake me up. Achievements like these make for an incredibly encouraging documentary, and they’re proof that progressive and representative television remains vital.”I’ve come a long way since the first series,” Sami says. “I just wish it had happened sooner.”