A female entrepreneur looking for a wife is not an unusual scenario in today’s world.
But in the early 19th century that’s a whole different story — and it’s told in HBO’s “Gentleman Jack,” set in 1832 England.
“Because female homosexuality was never [historically] criminalized, there were no records of it,” says “Gentleman Jack” creator Sally Wainwright (“Happy Valley”). “There would be court records of male homosexuality — because they’d be arrested and prosecuted. Whereas female homosexuality was invisible.”
The eight-episode “Gentleman Jack” (premiering 10 p.m. Monday) is an HBO/BBC co-production set in 1830s Yorkshire. It follows Ann Lister (Suranne Jones, “Vanity Fair”), a real historical figure who was a landowner, diarist, mountaineer and traveler. For much of her life, she lived with her (not legal) wife Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle, “Peaky Blinders”).
But if lesbians in the 1800s were “invisible,” as Wainwright says, how, then, can you make a show about a gay woman from that era?
It turns out that Lister kept diaries. Although they were written in code they’ve been translated, and are the basis for “Gentleman Jack.”
“I used to visit [Lister’s historic home] Shibden Hall a lot as a child because I grew up in that area,” says Wainwright. “There was no mention of Ann, no awareness of her. In the 1990s I started to pick up in the ether that this extraordinary woman had owned Shibden. It became apparent to me, in retrospect, that people just didn’t talk about her because she had married another woman 200 years ago.”
Jones says taking the part of Lister was a no-brainer. “As a 40-year-old actress playing someone who is 41, these parts come around so few and far between,” she says. “And also the way that Sally had taken a period drama and made it so modern, in a way. Because [Ann Lister] is modern.”
The show’s music cues and cuts are fast, similar to the British gangster show “Peaky Blinders.” And, most unusual of all for a period drama, Ann occasionally addresses the camera, a la “The Office.”
“I spent a lot of time with her journals,” says Wainwright. “It’s really quite an emotional experience, to know that her hand has been all over this page, [that] you could be the first person to look at this page since she wrote it. It’s very intense, very intimate. Her speaking to the camera was a way to try to re-create that intimacy.”
The top hat worn by Lister in “Gentleman Jack” is an embellishment, but the real Lister dressed in all black as she does onscreen — even to weddings — and she was sometimes mistaken for a man. To capture her spirit, Jones says she worked with the costume department to mix male and female elements in her costume.
“I wore male boots [and] male underwear on top of a female corset,” she says. “We came up with something that felt very [socially] acceptable. She kind of hid in plain sight, in many ways.
“The reason we chose to [use the top hat] is because now people dress like they want and we barely bat an eye,” says Wainwright. “Then she would have cut such an unusual figure. [The hat] gave a clear signal that she was very transgressive in the way that she looked.
“If we hadn’t added something so striking, to a modern audience it might not have registered just how unusual she was.”