The Most Overlooked Part of HBO's Groundbreaking LGBTQ Series 'Gentleman Jack'
In the pages of her now-famous diaries thought to total more than 4 million words, Anne Lister describes walking the streets of Halifax, West Yorkshire in 1832. These same steps are recreated in HBO's latest series Gentleman Jack, about the latter half of the industrialist's fascinating life as the "first modern lesbian," toying with gender performance and defying assumptions of her capabilities (she was the first woman recorded to collect land tax and was a prodigious land owner and entrepreneur, as well as a world traveler). Lister's life is rife for fervent exploration; she was open about her sexuality during a time when she was framed as either eccentric by her friends or repugnant by her critics.
Created by Sally Wainwright (Happy Valley and plenty of other BBC series), Gentleman Jack decodes Lister's extensive diaries, which she had kept hidden until decades following her death when historians began to rifle through the elaborate code Lister would use to convey her intimate love affairs. In the show, Lister (played by Suranne Jones) breaks the fourth wall monologuing passages, taking agency over her own story, here mostly focused on the relationship between herself and her partner, Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle). The renewed popularity of Anne Lister within the last few years, following the TV movie adaptation The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister from 2010, have been the elements of Gentleman Jack that make the show far more than a stylish period drama.
There has been plenty of deserved praise for Gentleman Jack as the first season came to an end last week, and a second season has already been confirmed. Capitalizing on the extraordinary story of Lister, Season 1 unpacks gender performance, sexuality, and female desire; the script is full of thoughtful, sardonic writing. But Gentleman Jack's least-discussed element, and one of the best portrayed on the show, has been its handling of Ann Walker's mental health.
Only a few years before the Victorian Era in England, mental health was not only taboo, of course, but those who struggled were often seen as feeble, inconvenient, and othered by their community. As described in a 2014 BBC article, people who were seen as mentally ill were placed in asylums while their family and friends received financial gain from the person's estate. Essentially, if relatives found a member of their family, a wealthy member at that, to be trite or annoying, it was a perfect opportunity to make some easy money while ridding themselves of a relative they dislike. Adding to the troubled lives of those who lived with mental health problems during the 1800s, psychiatrists and therapists weren't as readily available as they are now. Even worse, those who did practice anything involving mental illness or health were dubbed alienists: they held the belief that the mentally ill had become literally alienated from one's self. The term ‘mad-doctor,' as in a psychologist or psychiatrist, was also used rather flippantly throughout the time, adding to the stigma.
During Ann Walker's introduction, a young woman in her late 20s, she is surrounded by older members of her family and doted upon for her "fragile" health. In the early episodes of Gentleman Jack, the doctor treating Walker whispers to Lister about her love interest's "nerves," as if the mention of her anxiety was a scarlet letter. But upon meeting the young Ms. Walker, Lister is nothing but positive and supportive. It's this contrast between Lister and the other characters surrounding Ann Walker -- her other friends and family -- that sets the tone for how the series treats Ann's mental health.
Whereas the audience is asked to actively engage with Anne Lister as she talks directly into the camera, a request is made to empathize with Walker's uncomfortable positionality, as a person struggling with their mental health and coming to terms with their sexual orientation. A young woman who, by all accounts, has demonstrated to be dissociative, depressed, anxiety-ridden, and later reveals to have struggled with internalizing her trauma, it's difficult to not grind one's teeth when another character refers to the young woman as an "invalid." "There is nothing invalid about you," Anne Lister says to Walker in one of the series' first episodes. Bearing witness to Lister's treatment of Walker, engaging with her, and providing her remedies beyond bedrest only goes to further the care with which Gentleman Jack handles mental health.
Just as the audience holds a one-sided conversation with Lister, Walker's own nightmares become visceral depictions of her mental state. One episode in particular drops audiences right in: Walker and Lister are being summoned to the gallows for the crime of being gay -- of being themselves. Familiar faces jeer at them and religious zealots call them sinners, unnatural to this world. Upon being hanged in her dream, Walker wakes up, scared and neurotic. With Lister staying with Walker, the young woman's neurosis only becomes more prevalent as she isolates herself, staying up during the evening hours and sleeping during the day. She becomes scared of the world and further suspicious of the people around her, save for Lister. But instead of fetching a doctor, Lister employs abounding empathy, building Walker up instead of shutting her away.
With the first season concluding, Walker finally took her own health -- and life -- into her hands. Dealing with the aftermath of a suicide attempt, she comes to terms with the fact that she is the authority on her own health. Pursuing her agency, Walker leaves the home of her sister and controlling brother-in-law, finding Lister, and ending the first season far more content, and free, than she had ever been through the series.
The celebration of Gentleman Jack has been earned for its commentary and dramatization of such a fascinating historical figure as Anne Lister. But the show's handling of her partner's mental health is worth equal praise. The series not only captures the lackadaisical attitudes toward mental health leading up to the Victorian Era, but intimately asks audiences to empathize with Walker's own interiority. With a second season on the way, it can only be assumed that the creatives behind HBO's Gentleman Jack will continue to handle the story of these two women with as much care and reflection as Lister treated Walker.