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We Rise Above It: A Tribute to Gentleman Jack and Her Fandom

Photograph by Aimee Spinks/HBO

Three years ago I decided to check out a little program by the name of Gentleman Jack. All I knew was that it was about Anne Lister, who is considered to be the first modern lesbian. It was created by Sally Wainwright, a writer I deeply admired from her other series which present strong females in lead roles. It starred two English actresses who I deeply admired, but I knew didn’t have a strong fan base outside the UK. Suranne Jones, an actress I came to love from her work on Doctor Who and the Sally Wainwright series Scott and Bailey, and Sophie Rundle who I absolutely adored in Bletchley Circle.

Before I go further, there is something you must know about me. When I fall in love with a series, I fall completely in love with it. I allow it to consume me. I want to learn all there is to be known involving its formation. I want to break down every moment and learn about the themes behind every scene. I dive into the deep end of its fandom and try to find others who are as passionate about it as I am. This said, there have only been a few times where I’ve had a series completely reshape my views and help me begin a new chapter in my life, and Gentleman Jack was certainly one of them.

Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle) and Anne Lister (Suranne Jones) about to kiss.
Photograph by Aimee Spinks/HBO

There was a time before Gentleman Jack when I was settling into the routine my life was giving me. I had a job at Starbucks, I was still figuring out how to be completely comfortable in my sexuality, and I was constantly saying that I wanted to write but could never pin my ideas down long enough for me to follow through with them. There was something in watching Suranne Jones as Anne Lister that lit a match somewhere in my being which allowed me to reawaken urges I had long put aside. When the finale happened, I found myself full of thoughts and emotions, but no outlet in which to put them. That was when I took a cue from Anne and began writing. With help from a friend, that writing brought me to this website and I saw my first, truly proudest piece being published, “Gentleman Jack: An Open Door”.

I found myself branching out in other areas as well. Besides writing, I love the art form of cosplaying (which is recreating the costumes of your favorite characters and then allowing yourself to inhabit them). My biggest venture into recreating costumes came when I had created my Evil Queen from Once Upon A Time. After her, most of what I did involve taking clothing and altering it. I never thought I would attempt to create a period-accurate recreation of one of Anne Lister’s costumes from Gentleman Jack and yet there I was buying the fabric, the patterns, and all the little details to be hand sewn in. 

When walking around in Anne, there was a confidence I found that made me feel more at home in myself. I wore her to New York Comic Con that year and I had an incredible experience even though she wasn’t as well-received as some of the more elaborate costumes!

While at a Game of Thrones shoot that I was photographing, I found a single Yara cosplayer. Yara in the series is played by Gemma Whelan who is also in Gentleman Jack as Anne’s sister Marian Lister. The moment when we spotted one another was as if the entire room went into slow motion and a shining light dropped down right onto each of us. She was completely happy to take a photo recreating one of our mutually favorite scenes from the show. 

A cosplay of Anne Lister patting the head of a Yara Greyjoy cosplay.
Myself cosplaying as Anne Lister with a Yara Greyjoy cosplayer at New York Comic Con 2019.

There have been many times I’ve been asked about Anne Lister. Who was she?

Anne was a trailblazing woman who was way ahead of her time, that history tried to forget. She owned property, had studied many sciences, was involved in politics, traveled Europe conquering mountains that others couldn’t, and she wasn’t afraid to be herself. She didn’t dress the way society wanted her to, and she didn’t marry a man out of convenience. We know so much about her because she wrote about every single moment of her life in a diary where parts were put into a code she had created. That diary was then hidden through time because her family was afraid of what society would learn.

I had been out as a lesbian for a while but even with that realization came the question of—what now? How expressive do I want to be of this? Where do I fall within the spectrum of the LGBTQ+ community? Do I get plaid? Was I butch? Was I fem? Was there something in between? Do I really need so many cats? I had many questions but was completely afraid to ask them, and then Gentleman Jack came and with that, a new community.

A Group of people out at a Bar.
One of the many Lister Sister meetups I have attended. This one was because Lister Sister comedian, Amanda Walgrove (Far Left) was in town.

Fans of the series call ourselves Lister Sisters, and it is this found community that helped me arrive at exactly who I wanted to be. Podcasts such as Shibden After Dark, Top Hat Topics, and Very Gay, Very Ladylike created groups where we could come together to ask questions that we might be too embarrassed to ask elsewhere. There would be daily Zoom chats during the pandemic where we would just comfort one another with all the craziness that was going on in the world. Before the COVID times, we would have meetups all over the world. Lister Sisters were organizing group meetings in London, Halifax (the home of Anne Lister), New York, and Los Angeles, to name a few.

I had been involved with a lot of those Lister Sister meetups in the New York area. A very memorable one was when author Jill Liddington was coming to do a discussion on Anne Lister in Nyack, New York. Usually, I have to go into the city for something like this but this time it was right in my backyard. This single event turned into an entire weekend, sort of a miniature Anne Lister Con, where Lister Sisters from both the New York area and even as far as North Carolina were attending. I had organized a small meetup the night of Liddington’s talk. The organizer of that discussion ended up arranging a brunch for us and Jill Liddington the very next day. Let’s just say, it becomes quite the scene when you have a bunch of intellectual lesbians all in one room discussing the fine details of Anne Lister’s diary.

There is a celebration called Anne Lister Birthday Week (ALBW) that begins on April 3rd, which is Anne Lister’s 231st birthday, and continues until April 9th. ALBW takes the miniature Anne Lister Con from Nyack, New York, and turns it into a Sapphic Dragon Con. This celebration of Anne’s life, which was orchestrated by fans, is an event happening at Shibden Hall and throughout Halifax, England. It’s going to be filled with panels talking about the show and the history behind it. Book signings and lectures by authors Jill Liddington, Patricia Hughes, Angela Clare, and Helena Whitbread There are going to be tours given at many of the historic locations. Most importantly, it’s acting as a way to bring the community together. 

A group of people at a restaurant.
Myself and other Lister Sisters having brunch with author Jill Liddington (Center).

This community is the same that continues to play a huge part in helping the West Yorkshire Archive Service decode more of Anne’s diaries. To give you an idea, Anne Lister began writing these diaries in 1806 at the age of 15 when she fell in love with a fellow schoolmate, Eliza. She wrote every day up until August 11, 1840. She would be dead six weeks later on September 22. There are also many letters of correspondence between her and the people in her life. 

In the midst of working on Anne Lister’s diaries, there was a diary discovery belonging to Ann Walker, Lister’s wife who was placed in an asylum after Lister’s death by her own family. Until that discovery, the only knowledge we had of Ann Walker had come from Anne Lister since the Walker family destroyed everything belonging to her. There’s a group of Lister Sisters who have gotten together to work on Ann Walker’s diary. They also fight to get a proper plaque up in St Matthew’s Churchyard in Lightcliffe where she was laid to rest. It’s through this community that Ann Walker gained her voice back.

Others have gone into exploring Mariana Lawton, the other woman who had stolen Anne’s heart for years before Ann Walker came into the picture. Although the series makes her out to be an antagonist to Ann Walker for Lister’s heart, the work being done by this group researching her history and bringing more of her story to light. 

Gentleman Jack has done for the Lesbian community what Xena: Warrior Princess did for it back in the ’90s. This show and this woman created a community where we are all constantly learning and connecting with one another. It’s through all this that I felt more alive and encouraged to be my geeky, history-loving self. It’s through this that I have seen many people of all ages come into their identities. Some have discovered their sexuality and the courage to come out to their families. Others have discovered a newfound sense of self, and the courage to express themselves through what they wear because Anne Lister was one to not conform to the social norms for women’s dress. 

Pat Esgate speaks at the front of a crowded room.
Pat Esgate introduces author Jill Liddington at the Pride Center in Nyack, NY. Jill Liddington is there to do a talk on Anne Lister.

I had asked some Lister Sisters how Anne Lister had influenced their lives since Gentleman Jack aired. 

Pat Esgate, founder of Anne Lister Birthday Week said, “Representation is everything. We cannot be who we cannot see and if all we see are the typical made-for-male-gaze lesbian stereotypes in the media, which has nothing to do with the vast majority of the LGBTQ+ community, how can we ever aspire to becoming who we might suspect we truly are? Confident, swaggering, gentle, bookish, outgoing, self-determinant—whatever floats your boat—beings in charge of our lives and our own loves! Made exactly as whatever creator you may believe in intended for us! This is what Gentleman Jack has gifted us with: a new view of us, one we can take pride in!”

Susan Spilecki said, “When lockdown meant I was teaching from home I decided to start wearing a dress shirt and tie every day for work so that I would have my work clothes that—at the end of the day—I could change out of to return to my home mindset. I had been wearing ties a little bit starting in 2017, because of Trumpery, but was still nervous about doing it too much, not knowing what kind of reaction I would get. [But] Wearing it every day over Zoom and having nobody even blink gave me confidence. When we finally were back on the ground in Fall 2021, [I] simply wore ties, vests, pocket squares, wingtips, etc. every single day, and again nobody blinked. [But] I was thinking every day about Sally [Wainwright] and Suranne [Jones] giving us real butch representation and I felt like if I’d had that as a college student, I might have come out 20 years earlier. I’m never going to be Anne Lister for my students, but being her a little inside myself gave me the confidence to dress the way I like and actually enjoy clothes, which came as a shock to me.”

Alex Holbrook, who is an Assistant Professor of History, told me, “Suranne Jones’ Anne Lister is so irrepressible, so insistently and unapologetically herself, that I think the simple act of watching the show stirred a part of me that also desperately needed to be acknowledged and brought forward.  I spent a long time hiding my queerness—hiding from it, really—but in the community of Gentleman Jack fans, buoyed up by their enthusiasm for the show, I found a place where I could express myself more authentically and honestly. Anne Lister, Gentleman Jack, and the whole fandom made me experience something I’d never felt before: pride in being queer. I am so grateful!”

Finally, founder and co-host of Top Hat Topics, Kristen Hughes said, “I first learned of Anne Lister many moons ago in a women-focused British literature course in college, and was always fascinated. When the show came out I was not prepared for the sisterhood and camaraderie it would create across oceans. It was that same sisterhood that inspired Jenn [Snyder] and I to create the first Gentleman Jack podcast that was out there, and had given us the most magical of international families.”

Group of people around a fountain.
A Lister Sister meet-up I organized with Amanda (far right) one of the hosts from “Very Gay Very Ladylike” held in New York City.

So many people, including myself, have become so thankful that we discovered Gentleman Jack and with it Anne Lister. This woman has allowed us to find the courage to express ourselves in many ways. She’s given us the opportunity to meet others and form communities! With Anne Lister and the Gentleman Jack fandom, it feels a little less lonely out there. It feels as though we are all a little closer because we have made so many lasting bonds thanks to this.

It’s fantastic to know that our wait for more is almost over. After a three-year wait, Gentleman Jack will premiere its second season in the UK on April 10th on BBC1, and later this month on HBO here in the United States. It is also airing throughout Europe, Latin America, and Australia even though the dates are still unannounced. I for one look forward to taking this journey with you all! Anne Lister may not have wanted everyone to know about her business, but it’s because we do that that a lot of us have been able to become the people we want to be.

Written by Katie Bienvenue

Katie is a writer, cosplayer, craftswoman, and Barista. When she isn't talking about Chainmaille she is usually found discussing some television series, film, or how to properly make one's latte.

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