“Are you a man?” a young boy asks Anne Lister (Suranne Jones) in the second episode of HBO’s “Gentleman Jack.”
“Well, that’s a … question,” she says. She’s heard it before, even when dressed in silks and ribbons rather than her preferred outfit (black upon black, from her top hat to the hem of her long coat). “So no,” she continues, “I am not a man. I’m a lady — woman. I’m a lady-woman. I’m a woman.”
It’s one of the few times we hear her grasp for words, perhaps because it’s one of the few times we hear someone put to her so bluntly the thoughts of her adult neighbors in 1832 West Yorkshire: Who is this person? (The series’s title comes from the nickname Halifax residents gave her for her masculine effect.)
The answer: She is — like “Gentleman Jack,” a rollicking eight-episode series that begins Monday — an original.
“Jack” draws upon the diaries of the real Anne Lister, who told her life story in millions of words, many of them in a code based on mathematical symbols and the Greek alphabet that was not broken until the 1980s. She was a woman who loved women and courted them roguishly. She was a landowner who did business with calculation. She was not a man. She simply insisted — with striking success for her time — on having the same liberties as one.
She was, above all, a presence, as the series announces by having her arrive driving a team of horses hell-for-leather into her hometown Halifax, where she has returned to take charge of her rundown ancestral home of Shibden Hall. She dismounts, brisk and commanding, looking like a steampunk-goth assassin.
Though Anne is coming home heartbroken over a lover who’s gotten engaged to a man, the scene announces that this will be no tragic story of a lesbian living furtively in a time that doesn’t understand her. Anne Lister knows the life she wants, and she has the wherewithal to decide that she will have it.
Taking over the books of the estate — over the eye-rolling irritation of her sister Marian (Gemma Whelan), perennially overshadowed by her — she sets out to exploit the estate’s coal deposits, which brings her into conflict with the foppish businessman Christopher Rawson (Vincent Franklin).
She also finds herself in want of a wife — a truth universally acknowledged for the prosperous bachelor, as Jane Austen noted. (Her preferences are an open secret in Halifax, where the gossips chirp that she “cannot be trusted in the company of other women.”)
She begins wooing the heiress Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle), gently encouraging her hints of affection and boasting to the camera, in a rakish aside, “I can see that the poor girl already seems thoroughly in love with me.”
Could anyone help it? Jones’s performance is a marvel, exuding vitality, charisma and sexual confidence. But she also brings Anne an empathy, humanity and glimpses of vulnerability that make her more than simply a flawless Regency-era Mary Sue.
Her boldness comes from having been hurt and wronged; her flair for drama comes from deep feeling (she wears her heart on her jet-black sleeve). Her power relies on a class privilege that she can be blind to, though “Jack” is not.
Lister, globe-trotting and intellectually ravenous, bemoaned her stolid and “shabby” hometown. But we’re fortunate she was from Halifax, since two centuries later it become the storytelling home turf of Sally Wainwright, the creator and writer of the show. (Wainwright also directed half of the episodes.)
Many of Wainwright’s past series, like the crime story “Happy Valley” and the elder romance “Last Tango in Halifax,” have been set in the present, telling the stories of middle- and working-class characters in vivid, naturalistic dialogue.
Wainwright’s gifts take well to time travel. (She also wrote and directed “To Walk Invisible,” a 2016 TV movie about the Brontës.) The 19th-century locutions of “Jack” feel lively and lived-in; the tone is neither starchy nor nostalgic but sardonic, playful and abundantly funny.
All this gives “Jack” the most rare quality a period piece can have: It feels as if the characters lived in the present. That doesn’t mean anachronistically conferring on them our sensibilities (even if Anne was ahead of her time, and, in some ways, ours). It means showing that they — like anyone at any time in history — believe that they exist in the moment, not in a museum. It means conveying the sense of “This thing is happening” rather than “This thing happened once.”
In the five episodes provided to critics, the series develops several domestic and romantic subplots among the Shibden staff and farm tenants. They offer some upstairs-downstairs contrast but don’t entirely mesh with the main thread. The eight-episode season might have worked better as a more closely focused six.
But that would mean less time immersed in this nimble series, which both offers an engrossing 19th-century comedy of social mores and upends (as they didn’t say in 1832) the heteronormative assumptions of such stories.
And it would mean less time in the intoxicating, swaggery presence of Jones’s Anne Lister, a woman called “unnatural” behind her back but who proves herself a force of nature.