When I first watched Gentlemen Jack, now available on HBO, I was gobsmacked by its leading lady Anne Lister. Played by Doctor Foster star Suranne Jones, the character is based on the real-life Lister, a lesbian landowner in 19th-century England endowed with the gift of gab who kept meticulous diaries about her life. On screen, Lister translates as both intense and persuasive. At first I found that maddening; but eventually, my attraction to her crept up like a schoolgirl crush. She’s intoxicating and sexy in ways that are totally unconventional for a TV lead. And that was Gentleman Jack creator Sally Wainwright’s master plan.
Wainwright has been working on adapting Anne Lister’s diaries for the screen for over 20 years, and the result of her efforts is a period drama that features complex women on-screen, captured by many brilliant women behind the camera. “People haven’t been aware that women like Anne Lister existed until now because people like her have been rendered invisible by history,” Wainwright tells me. “That’s why Anne Lister’s diary has been referred to as the Rosetta Stone of lesbian life [in the 19th-century]. We realized we have a clear record of the level of intimacy that existed amongst women.”
Wainwright and Jones both wanted to ensure that Anne’s queerness was depicted realistically and fairly, so Wainwright hired a lesbian advisor and an intimacy advisor to coordinate the sex scenes. Jones appreciated having the experts available to her. “I think, in the current climate, every show should have [an intimacy advisor,” Jones says. “It just makes everyone safe and comfortable. We had someone that we could talk to if there were any questions.”
“I wanted to make a point of not being gratuitous,” Wainwright says of the sex scenes. “But I wanted to combine that with making a big character. Anne Lister was a great lover, and her sex was very evolved. I think we shot the scenes in a way that’s very beautiful, very apt.”
Jones and Wainwright worked with the advisors to treat every detail delicately, considering everything from the feelings of the women Lister slept with to the temperature of the room. “We looked into how they all had sex differently and how comfortable they were,” Jones explains. “Those houses are really cold, so you’d need to have your nightie on. Also, it’s really important that if anyone knocks on the door and walks into the bedroom they could jump apart and pretend they were just two friends sleeping in the same bed, which women [at the time] did without any questions being asked.”
“I think if anyone’s looking for titillation or flesh, this is not the show for them,” Jones continues. “It’s a much more intellectual, psychological vision of a character.”
This attention to detail even carried out in the way Jones physically played the character. “We took from the diaries the fact that she walked quickly and upright, that she sounded deep and masculine,” Jones says. “She was mistaken for a man and called ‘Gentleman Jack.’ So we worked with her intelligence coming out in a physical manner like big gestures.”
As a lesbian myself, there is much to lust after in Gentleman Jack. Lister is unlike any lead character I’ve seen on TV—she’s towering, intimidating, unnerving. She also vibrates with life and excitement in a way that feels completely timeless. As Wainwright told me, Lister was a “fantastically bold woman who just didn’t conform to societal norms, who didn’t hide her sexuality.”
That boldness is fiercely female—even if, historically, it was once labeled as “gentlemanly.”
Jill Gutowitz is a writer and comedian living in Los Angeles.