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.