Sunday, July 7, 2019

July's Sunday Corner with Lee Liberman: GENTLEMAN JACK, a jaunty tale of Independence

“ If you have a problem with who I am, 
your quarrel is with my creator.” 
 --Mayor Pete Buttigieg

This is the story of Anne Lister (1791-1840) of the Yorkshire Village of Halifax, dubbed ‘Gentleman Jack’ after her death, the first lesbian known to ‘marry.’ Her neighbors gossiped that “she likes the ladies” but disapproval of her mannish affect was overcome by Anne’s charisma and strength of character. This when sex between men was illegal and lesbianism not a ‘thing’ -- life circumstance led some women to have companions but absent sexual penetration it was not thought transgressive. 

Sally Wainwright (at right) of Last Tango in Halifax and Happy Valley, the HBO/ BBC1 series creator and screenwriter, grew up in Yorkshire near the Lister family seat, Shibden Hall. Wainwright told this story using Anne’s own words, because while Anne strode her world, she was also writing a massive 24-27 volume diary of 4-5 million words (accounts vary) describing in copious detail her business dealings and social views. As for her romances — she wrote about that in code. In the 1890’s her descendent, John Lister, and an antiquarian colleague of his, deciphered enough code to be wowed by its incendiary content. Lister walled up the diaries in Shibden Hall to preserve them and also protect himself (he was gay) in the era when Oscar Wilde was on trial for homosexuality. (Below, archival portrait of Anne Lister and a diary page.)

Silence descended for near a century over Anne Lister and her diaries until Helena Whitbread of Halifax came along in the 1980’s. When Whitbread discovered the Anne Lister trove she began a multi-year project to decipher the coded parts. Three books followed with a biography in the works.  Another biography accompanies the HBO/BBC1 series, written by Anne Choma with a forward by Sally Wainwright. With her prodigious screen-writing talent, Wainwright has brought this entirely entertaining and amazing tale to life at a time public opinion is welcoming. 

The series star, Suranne Jones, is a multi-credited actress (see her fine WWI series, The Crimson Field, Amazon Prime, that lacks in flash what it has in depth and deserved more chapters than it got). Jones is so arresting as Lister that Sophie Rundle as Anne’s lover has been somewhat overlooked by critics. Rundle plays a scrappy gang moll in Peaky Blinders but here she amazes as an ingenue. Her Ann Walker is close to camp, a bird and-doll-like femme whose skirts sway, cheeks go pink, and curls tremble in the presence of her idol — clever, strong Anne Lister. But Ann is mentally frail; she frets about gossip and has terrifying dreams of public torture and ridicule — she thinks she should take Mr. Ainsworth, her pushy suitor. (Ainsworth is played by Brendan Patricks, Mary Crawley’s hapless admirer, Evelyn Napier, on Downton Abbey).

The first chapter introduces us to the domestic Halifax scene of 1832. Anne has just inherited Shibden Hall from her uncle, a wise judge of her competence and the likelihood she would not marry and convey the family estate to a husband. Anne sets about bringing the Tudor family seat (built 1420, occupied by Listers since 1615) up to her standards. Much of the filming is done in and around Shibden Hall, shown below, now a public tour site and park.

Anne's helpless elderly aunt and father (who soldiered at the Battle of Lexington in 1775) and jealous younger sister, Marian, a funny, droll Gemma Whelan (GOT's Yara Grayjoy, fresh off the Iron Islands) have their doubts as Anne boldly takes charge of management, but feel relief more. (Below, l Anne, sister Marian; front, Gemma Jones as Aunt Anne Lister and Timothy West as Jeremy Lister, Anne’s father.)

We are introduced to the tribulations of her tenants, such as the good-hearted Tom Sowden (Tom Lewis, below center) who kills his savagely-violent father in despair and turns him over to the pigs. 

There’s drama in her household staff ( Shibden staffer, below, John Booth, played by Thomas Howes, Downton Abbey footman, William) and ongoing tangle with a pair of mercenary Halifax brothers, the Rawsons, who have been stealing coal from her property. Anne will sink her own well and find them out.

The tone of ‘Gentleman Jack’ is set by a jaunty tuneIn fact this story does not yield to labeling — it is comedy, satire, drama, and sexy romance rolled into one rollicking delight, and just renewed for a second series.

In the main we follow Anne’s search for partnership she felt was her due, in spite of terrible disappointments (her lovers marrying men). As Ann Walker crumbles tearfully under the weight of gossip (“I would rather die than have people know what we do”), Anne Lister goes all in to make her case:

“...Between men it is illegal, a criminal act. Between women it isn’t...we can’t be hanged for it. But if it were...well then, I would have to put my neck in the noose because I love only the fairer sex...I was born like this... If I was to lie with a man, surely that would be unnatural, surely that would be against God who made us.....” (There are reports of women being put to death in the Middle Ages for sex using dildo’s, which violated the transgression against penetration.)

Anne’s faith was bound up in her sexual identity. “Why should I compromise myself to lie with another man’s wife ... I would become a liar, a cheat, and a fornicator, and that is not what I want. And that is why our present connection without a more solemn tie for me is wrong. I want you to become my wife...according to God’s holy ordinance.....”

 Many troubles unfold before Anne and Ann solemnify their secret bond, but as this story was being filmed, a plaque ringed in rainbow was affixed to the 12th century church where the two took the sacrament together, signifying their commitment.

The above post was written by our 
monthly correspondent Lee Liberman

No comments: