A 180 Year Old Woman Stole My Heart

photo credit: Jay Brooks/HBO

This is embarrassing. I have fallen in love with a woman who died nearly 200 years ago.

I blame my newfound love on the new and enthralling period drama Gentleman Jack. The eight-episode prime time series is adapted from the diaries of Anne Lister, a charismatic female force of nature who refused to accept the traditional roles assigned to women of her day, rejected the notion that her future depended on a well-arranged marriage, and set out to find happiness, lifelong companionship, financial security, and love –– with another woman. (Surely I can’t be the only lesbian old enough for Medicare who feels this way, and I’ve assured my wife this will pass, eventually.)

From the time she was in her 20s she documented her extensive travels and every single thing that happened to her. Her diaries contain more than 4 million words, the equivalent of close to 40 novels. She didn’t mince words about her steamy sex life either, devising her own secret code and vocabulary to describe it in great detail. Is it hot in here, or is it just me?

My head is fixated on the historical Lister, who was born in 1791 and died in 1840 and owned Shibden Hall near Halifax in northern England. She was intent on overseeing her business affairs, making money, finding love, and marrying her rich neighbor Ann Walker.

My heart, meanwhile, has taken a dive for the television character played by Suranne Jones, who’s got acting chops to rival Meryl Streep. When she laces up her corset, slips on a long black waistcoat, dons a top hat, and marches her tall, beautiful self back to 1832, she morphs into bold and irrepressible Anne Lister. I can’t get enough of Anne’s million-dollar smile, her expressive eyebrows, and the way her brown eyes catch the light and peer through you all the way the day after tomorrow. Believe me, Ms. Jones, you’re a master of your craft, and you’re more than earning your paycheck by making lesbians all over the world swoon and imagine they are the one you’re kissing, caressing, and taking to new heights.

I never get tired of Anne’s escapades or finding out about what she’s been up to. There is plenty to discover.

I admit it: I’ve fallen victim to the Listermania phenomenon spreading through the ranks of lesbians as fast as a U-Haul moving in a new girlfriend after three dates.

I confess to my inexplicable obsession with Gentleman Jack. I’m no longer guarding my secret of belonging to the nearly 10,000-member online fan group almost as closely as I did my first love affair. Someone in the group has coined a name for us rabid fans: we’re Lister Sisters and Lister Misters. Like the thousands who are now tracing Anne’s and Ann’s footsteps and paying their respects, I too have made a pilgrimage to Shibden Hall, the new lesbian mecca.

Gentleman Jack has spawned a pop-up cottage industry. Books about Anne Lister and transcriptions of her diaries are hot items. T-shirts, bumper stickers in Anne’s secret code, reproductions of the jewelry worn by Lister, tattoo designs, and original fan art are among the many things available. Personally, I’m holding out for an action figure to go with my Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I wouldn’t mind eavesdropping on the conversations those two could have.

It comes as a relief that I’m not the only one crazy about Lister, and neither are the legions who feel the same way about Walker. Our community needs heroines who set the bar for rising above prejudice and living life true to our nature. As lesbians and gay women, we’ve just had our identities validated. We’ve seen ourselves positively portrayed for a change. Gentleman Jack delivers what we’ve known and acted on all along: love is love. We’re not used to such tender and authentic scenes of women loving women. After being stuck with bland chicken nuggets for so long, now we’re feasting on cordon bleu.

With such an engaging story line, a stellar cast, and unexpected humor, Gentleman Jack is not only deliciously entertaining, it also gives breath and dimension to a woman in history who inspires us to this day. Even from the grave, Lister’s lessons in self-acceptance, courage, and confidence teach us to be just as strong.

If you haven’t yet met her, you’ve been warned: be prepared to fall in love when you do.

Season 1 of Gentleman Jack is available on DVD, HBO GO, and Amazon Prime and also can be downloaded from various websites. Season 2 is slated to air in 2021.

Janet Lea is a freelance writer who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico with her understanding and tolerant partner of 39 years and their cat, Daisy. She is currently working on a book about the Gentleman Jack effect.


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