Referring to Anne Lister as a force of nature is accurate, but it’s also just a starting point.
Nature was certainly one of her passions: The 19th-century Englishwoman dressed in stylish black clothes that resembled men’s wear and spent hours walking through the countryside, visiting friends and supervising workers at Shibden Hall, the Halifax, West Yorkshire estate she inherited. Her forceful personality was also evident in the business world; some of her acres were rich in coal, and she relished scrapping with the coal titans of the 1830s as she tried to improve the estate’s fortunes.
But her boldness was most evident in matters of love. Many of the 5 million-plus words in Lister’s voluminous diaries, some of which were in code, chronicled her relationships with a string of women she wooed, loved and bedded.
Lister’s complicated courtship with the wealthy Ann Walker sits at the heart of “Gentleman Jack,” a historical drama series premiering Monday on HBO (in a coproduction with the BBC) that was shot on location at Shibden Hall. As a child, the show’s creator and writer Sally Wainwright visited the historical site with her family — the house and its grounds are now a public park — but she didn’t have a full picture of Lister’s life for years. “People didn’t like talking about her,” Wainwright said.
She became more deeply acquainted with Lister after coming across “Female Fortune,” a 1998 book on Lister by Jill Liddington, and has spent many hours reading and decoding pages of Lister’s daily musings. “It’s not typed script, it’s handwriting,” Wainwright said. “So few eyes may have actually been across any particular piece of writing. To know that you might be the first person who’s read [a section] — it’s very intimate.”
Wainwright funded the restoration and digitization of the diary and said the West Yorkshire Archive Service is working on a site that should make it accessible to the public later this spring. The BAFTA-winner, best known to U.S. viewers for the Netflix cop drama “Happy Valley,” has also penned the foreword to “Gentleman Jack: The Real Anne Lister” by Anne Choma, a biographical portrait with extensive diary excerpts that will be released April 30.
In a phone interview last month, Wainwright — who also directed half of the eight episodes of “Gentleman Jack” — discussed “Happy Valley,” Lister’s ambitions and finding the perfect actress to play the “buccaneering” diarist. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
You’ve done a number of projects — “Happy Valley” in particular — focused on crime or police officers. Was “Gentleman Jack” an intentional break from that?
You can easily get pigeonholed as somebody who writes police dramas, and as much as I love the police dramas I’ve done, I wouldn’t want to get pigeonholed as specifically doing that. I’m quite lucky in all the dramas I’ve done, they’ve been quite different, from “Last Tango in Halifax” and “Happy Valley” and “To Walk Invisible,” my film about the Brontë sisters.
It strikes me that Catherine Cawood from “Happy Valley” and Anne Lister were both Yorkshire women who cared about their communities.
With Anne Lister it was slightly different, in that it was her estate and she had about 25 tenants. So it was her world and she did refer to them as “my people,” and she was very good to them. She could be hard on people — if they weren’t pulling their weight she wouldn’t think twice about evicting them. But there were people that did work hard and she looked after them. She often [paid for] people’s kids to be educated. That’s different from Catherine, who had a beat overseeing a massive landscape and was paid to do it. But she did care at quite a deep level. It’s an interesting thought, that parallel.
One thing that sets “Gentleman Jack” apart from your earlier work is that, as Anne, the actress Suranne Jones occasionally looks into the camera and addresses the viewer. Is that your way of re-creating the intimacy of the diary?
Absolutely. I thought long and hard about [whether] we wanted her to address the camera, because it’s something that a lot of people do now, with varying degrees of success. So I was quite nervous about whether to do it or not, and indeed, how to do it. We did it very sparingly, and we only did it when we felt absolutely justified. But the thinking behind it was definitely that [feeling] of intimacy with her audience. When you’re reading her most intimate thoughts in the journal, it does feel like you’ve got a direct line to her.
Why do you think she kept the diary?
She didn’t want to forget things, particularly in business. If she’d done a deal with someone, she would make a record of everything down to the last halfpenny. But I also think she was a compulsive writer. She took great pleasure in actually putting it down in black and white and in recording her relationships with other women, because then she could relive them.
She’s often direct and no-nonsense in daily life, but at certain moments, she can be quite vulnerable and romantic.
She’s a mass of contradictions. She was very tough, but she also wore her heart on her sleeve in the journal. You get a picture of a sensitive human being, someone who’s vulnerable to the vagaries of love and passion, but who is able to take on the world and who would not shy away from being quite conspicuous about who she was. And yet it’s clear that she did feel things deeply when people offended her.
She’s also willing to get down into the dirt with her workers, but at the same time, she believed in the class system.
Absolutely. If she was a man, none of these contradictions would be contradictions. She identified herself, really, with men, and with a sort of masculine persona. So the idea of pursuing Ann Walker [Sophie Rundle] for her money — that’s what landed men did then. They tried to improve their lot by marrying well. At the same time, I don’t think she wanted to be a man. I think she liked being a lesbian. I think she liked being a woman, because it allowed her to be in intimate situations with women in a way that a man in those days wouldn’t be allowed.
She reminds me of those 18th century Hogarth paintings — “A Rake’s Progress.” She’s a Regency rake and flirt at times, isn’t she?
That’s really true. Some of the press already is describing her as Victorian, but she wasn’t. She died three years after Victoria ascended the throne, so she’s very Regency. She was a real player. She was very good at sex. It was high on her agenda of what was important, and she was good at it.
Did you have an idea of who you wanted to play Anne for a long time?
I didn’t, to be honest. I couldn’t picture who could be Anne Lister. There aren’t that many portraits of her, and all that exist are a little bit cartoony. So I’ve never had a strong image of what she was like, and I needed someone to come and show me what she was like, and Suranne did that. Right from the word go, she really got it. Like Anne, she’s got a huge physical energy, she’s got this mental energy, and she’s bold and robust in her thinking. She will push things to the limit, and be willing to go into quite deep, dark places. But she also got how Anne was very swashbuckling and buccaneering and magnificent, really.
You can see why people are drawn to her. Every time Anne comes into a room, she’s so commanding.
She was very charismatic in real life. It’s clear from the journal that people liked being with her and that she always had plenty to say. Women probably did like her hugely because she gave them a sense of their own worth somehow — that women could be like this. They didn’t have to be these little bits of decoration. At the time, it was considered unladylike to be clever or to show you were too clever. So I think women must have found her extremely stimulating.