During the many months of quarantine, given an infinite amount of time to read and write, my husband and I binged most of Netflix. I remember very little of it. Murder mysteries blend into each other; some of them include grey shorelines of various parts of Great Britain, and others are set in grey cities of indiscriminate corruption. Once the world health crisis simmered down a bit and we were able to discuss anything else with family members, my granddaughter insisted we watch the new season of Bridgerton, which we did. It was bright and beautiful, and culturally interesting, but brief—mercifully perhaps. At some point, however, somehow in relation to that Austenesque romp, we stumbled upon Gentleman Jack.
We approached Gentleman Jack as though it had evolved out of Bridgerton, (which it did not—different producers, networks, etc.) and the assumption was quickly dispelled. Gentleman Jack is as beautiful as it should be for historical “fiction” after a pandemic, but it’s so much more interesting than that. Set in Halifax, the series bounces primarily between two estates—Shibden Hall, the ancestral and burnt umber estate inherited by Anne Lister (played by Suranne Jones) and being managed by her with aplomb, and Crow Nest where her inamorata (played by Sophie Rundle) lives in pastel splendor, also an heiress, but with far less cartilage. The dresses, the dishes, the scenery, all of it a delight, and then Anne, marching throughout in a walking skirt, vest, and coat of either black or navy blue, though it doesn’t matter. She is a force and is dressed like one.
I was worried that the other characters in the series would upbraid her for her appearance and behavior. Then I was afraid they wouldn’t. The series has its own aesthetic somewhere between what the reality of Anne Lister’s life must have been and our own sensibilities. Businessmen work with her, some gladly, some less so, her family members deal with her exactly as she is. She has a former lover, who is married to a man, which provides some complication, but only once is her sexuality dangerous to her, and that is handled brilliantly.
Two other things. First, all of this cognitive dissonance, a woman we might think of as a cross-dresser forges her way through 18th Century Halifax conducting a challenging business and wooing women, is personified in an almost Byronic heroine. I like Anne very much. But it would be just as easy not to. She is unabashed at all levels, and she might be using the woman who becomes her wife for her money. Or she definitely is, but money might be a major motivation for her. That takes a bit of the shine off of her. Also, she is ambitious to a fault. She roars through sitting rooms, barely nods to expected societal norms, but then suddenly bows to expectations, which she clearly understands and meets graciously. She is earnest, self-serving, and as unreliable a central figure as you can get.
The series is fresh and fascinating, and it is wrapped in a final really interesting element. Gentleman Jack occasionally breaks the fourth wall—something we’ve grown accustomed to, but here it seems associated with how Anne’s role is represented. A character, Anne or her sister, for instance, will occasionally look straight (for want of a better word) at the camera and we know we are in on the secret, that we know something (some of) the characters in the show don’t. It’s more significant than dramatic irony. It’s wonderful, carefully used, but now I wonder precisely which characters share in these nods...do her lovers? Time to watch it again.
Melody Wilson lives in Beaverton, Oregon. Recent work appears in Quartet, Front Porch Review, Re Dactions, and Sky Island Review. New work will appear in Sugar House Review, Minnow, and Nimrod. She received the 2021 Kay Snow Award and recognition for the Oberon, Dobler, and Pablo Neruda Awards. Her first chapbook, a finalist for the New Women’s Voices competition, Spineless: Memoir in Invertebrates will be published by Finishing Line Press in 2023, and her new blog about failed poems Two in the Bush can be found at melodywilson.com.