Bringing Anne, the Gentleman, to Life
Monday nights are about to become transgressive. Anne Lister, a revolutionary woman ahead of her time, lived her life and loved her women on her own terms—and documented it all in coded diary entries. Now, Lister’s larger-than-life persona and accomplishments are the subject of the new HBO show “Gentleman Jack,” Mondays at 10 p.m. ET/PT. Show creator, writer and co-director Sally Wainwright has brought this true story to life, and cast British-darling Suranne Jones as the titular Anne, whose gender nonconforming looks earned her the nickname “Gentleman Jack.”
The HBO team chatted with Sally and Suranne to find out how the diary entries informed the show, what it took to bring this character to life, and how Anne would self-identify in today’s inclusive LGBTQ+ landscape.
What was the impetus behind the series? How did you first come across the source material?
Sally Wainwright (SW): I grew up in Halifax, where Shibden Hall is, and I used to visit Shibden a lot when I was a kid in the 1970s. But I wasn't aware of Anne Lister; she wasn't somebody who you would know had ever lived there from your visit to the Hall. I don't know when I first heard the name said, but I became aware that she was quite an interesting woman, was quite transgressive and had owned Shibden. But it was really difficult to find out anything about her. In 1998, Jill Liddington published “Female Fortune,” a book about Anne Lister. Reading that opened my eyes completely to who this extraordinary woman was. She was the impetus—this extraordinary woman, this extraordinarily massive personality.
What in particular drew you to her?
SW: She just didn't behave like women were supposed to behave in society. She was a gay woman who lived a transgressive life. She recorded her relationships with other women in writing, a clear record, albeit in a secret code. She was very unashamed about it. It was something she was very comfortable with. That, combined with her very hands-on ruling over an estate—she was a great industrialist at a time when women just didn't do that. She was somebody who acquired a lot of agency in the world at the time when women had no agency. Women were very much second-class citizens and she just wasn't ever going to be a second-class citizen.
Suranne, what drew you to the role?
Suranne Jones (SJ): Even on the page, it was a very different period drama. It was fast and funny and intriguing; it was heartbreaking and very human. This is a once in a lifetime role. Then I had to go and audition. Sally and I had worked together before but hadn't seen each other for a long time. I instantly knew when we read that it was going to work, that the passion was going to be there, and that we could make something very special. But I knew it would be a work in progress because, to be someone like Anne Lister, you're going to have to put the work in.
How do you prepare for a role like Anne Lister, and how do you bring accuracy to the story?
SJ: You have to read as much material as you can. We visited Shibden. We had an historical adviser on set. We walked around her estate. We visited where the coal mines were. We were literally walking in her [footsteps]. We got to film in the actual house, which is a character in itself, as is the Yorkshire Landscape.
SW: We also rehearsed a lot. You don't normally get to rehearse for TV—you get like five minutes before a scene. Because she's such a specific and big character, we’d ask for a lot more rehearsal time. It was really very creative. It was wonderful seeing this character evolve: the mannerisms, and the conversations—and [to Suranne] you brought so many brilliant thoughts to it.
SJ: And we had a laugh, as well.
SW: Yeah, it was brilliant fun. I love this idea that Anne Lister gets a bit too close to people when she first meets them. She’ll invade their personal space and sort of work out what they had for breakfast based off the crumbs left on their shirt, or things like that. She's very perceptive, very smart.
SJ: You were really great at pushing me out of my comfort zone to say I needed to be big because this character is larger than life. And when she talks to the audience, when she breaks the fourth wall, that took some getting used to, until Sally explained that that was a diary entry.
Speaking of her diary, I read that much of the diary was decoded for the first time for the series. What was that process like?
SW: You can't underestimate how big this document is. It's 27 volumes, 300 pages in every volume, and it’s absolutely packed with dense, tiny writing, with more than four million words. We think it’s near five, actually. It's just been digitized, so we'll know exactly how many words it was.
So, there's a lot of information here. Most of it hasn't been transcribed, ever. It's still to be done. The books that exist—like Jill's Book “Female Fortune,” or Helena Whitbread’s books chronicling her life in the 1820s—they just offer selections from her diary. They give a real strong sense of who she is, but it is just a selection. The vast majority of the diary has never been transcribed. I wanted to know I hadn’t missed anything. So, we were transcribing every single day, every single detail.
I wanted to start in May 1832, and the show covers about two years. Transcribing was the first part. Then I’d re-read it because you use a completely different part of your brain to transcribe than you do to actually take it in. Then, the task was to turn the transcribed entries into drama. It was quite laborious—it took something like two months to write one episode, where normally it would take three weeks.
I wanted to touch upon Jane’s gender identity a bit. She was such a remarkable woman—truly ahead of her time. It’s a very gender nonconforming role. At the time, there wasn't language around gender roles like there is today. I wonder if you feel that there is an element of trans identity to Anne Lister? Or do you feel that, after all of this study and research, she just was a gender non-conforming/nonbinary person?
SW: There are debates about exactly what she might’ve been. But I think she liked being a woman. She could use [that] to great advantage. As a woman, she had a lot more access to other women than she would’ve had she been a man. That's my personal take. She equally never dressed as a man, like Dr. Barry—the woman who dressed as a man who was a doctor during the Crimean War. She never tried to pass herself off as a man. She was always called Miss Lister.
SJ: I'm still getting my head around her. We will never know. There's options now—she could have had a wife and children now, which we cover that she didn't want children back then. There's an actual quote from her diary, “I'm neither man nor woman in society, but the link between the two.” I thought about that a lot. She liked to play in the masculine role, but she loved being a woman. I was also listening to an interview with Asia Kate Dillon, a nonbinary actor, who was describing that your sex can be female but you can still not identify with being a man or a woman. Would she have been gender nonconforming, or gender nonbinary? I don't know. Maybe
SW: She was fascinated by her own body to the extent that she went to study under Georges Cuvier, the foremost thinker at the time on paleontology and anatomy. She genuinely wanted to know what was going on in her body. She thought something was different, physically, about her. And she didn't like being touched physically in intimate places, because it reminded her that she didn't have a penis. She thought she had “stones,” meaning testicles, internally, which would have made her intersex. We now know that wasn't the case because she was recording her periods every month. We'll never know, because we could never get inside her head. Only she could really truthfully answer whether she really wanted to be a man.
Watch “Gentleman Jack,” Mondays at 10 p.m. ET/PT. on HBO and get to know Anne, the Gentleman.