“Two jacks don’t suit.” — Isabella (Tib) Norcliffe (Season 2, Episode 2 of Gentleman Jack)
The title of this recap says it all. Gentleman Jack is now a production of The L Word but in 1830s Halifax and with much better writing. In this episode, Anne Lister (Suranne Jones) struggles to tell Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle) that lesbianism isn’t her first rodeo and that she has also shagged every eligible lesbian (both single and married) in England. As we recall in Season 1, Episode 3, Lister told Walker that she hasn’t had sex with women before (this elicited a big laugh from lesbians worldwide) to comfort her — something that we always knew was going to bite her in the ass if the series was ever renewed. Well, it has been two years in the show’s timeline since then, and Lister has loads of explaining to do.
The vast and rich tapestry of Anne Lister’s fruity past
We begin with Lister and Walker dining in a fancy Parisian restaurant. Lister is talking intelligently in French to Walker and while I did not understand a single word of what she was saying, the look of utter adoration on Walker’s face was enough for me. The real Anne Lister seduced many women with her worldly intelligence; women weren’t allowed to go to university back then, but Lister sought under-the-table lessons from academics and cleverly used her intellect to charm all the women she came across.
Interrupting our two lovebirds is Lister’s ex-girlfriend, Isabella (Tib) Norcliffe (Joanna Scanlan), who immediately starts updating Lister on the well-being of all their shared ex-girlfriends (some of whom Walker has met). As a baby lesbian in her first relationship with a woman, Walker is confused and extremely anxious — like Lister, Tib is loud, boisterous, and incredibly charming! She is also a jack — loosely translated, a slur directed at butch lesbians in the 19th century — with a fruity past and insider knowledge of all the lesbians in England. While Lister has presented an innocent front to Walker during their courtship, she must now wrestle with the disintegration of her carefully curated mask and confess that she is a woman with … lots of lesbian baggage.
The scene is as comedic as it is uncomfortable for Walker, whose utter obliviousness to England’s secret network of lesbians leaves her struggling to engage in the conversation. What I appreciate about Gentleman Jack’s latest season is how it elevates very absurdly ridiculous lesbian drama to a level of historical significance. It is important to know that lesbians found ways to meet up with each other through secret friendship circles. At least even as far back in the 1800s, we still dated each other’s exes. That certainly hasn’t changed.
Many instances of homophobia (and unconditional love from Lister’s family)
This episode is largely narrated from the perspective of how everyone else views our happy couple. To Lister’s ex-girlfriends, her marriage to Walker is a jarring conflict between two opposing personalities. For Aunt Anne (Gemma Jones) and Marian Lister (Gemma Whelan), the only thing that matters is that both Lister and Walker are content. Walker’s relatives, however, would literally rather see Walker dead than be happy together with another woman. The mass gathering between Walker’s relatives was extremely unpleasant to say the least, as they decide to send an eligible bachelor to court Walker into marriage … what I presume is the discreet 19th-century version of conversion therapy.
While over at Crow Nest, Eliza Washington (Emma Wrightson) and Henry Hardcastle (Dexter Hughes) accidentally catch sight of Lister and Walker making out with each other. We view a passionate lesbian romantic tryst through the two children’s disgust and palpable fear. Just a few seconds prior to this incident, Lister tells Walker that rising above it is the only way to survive as a lesbian in this world. But by focalizing Lister and Walker’s love for each other through the children’s disgust, the show reminds us that there is only so much that resilience can do, even though our two wives have that in abundance. As we have seen in the previous season, it is homophobia, like that of the two children, which turned Walker against her own love for Lister. This scene also feels worse because Lister and Walker are beyond careful with hiding the true extent of their relationship from the wider public, which makes this tiny slip-up devastating. There is really only so much that meticulous secrecy and strength can do.
Update on Mariana Lawton
Mariana Lawton (Lydia Leonard) is a whole mood. I would be ugly crying and shaking too if I realized that my last chances at shagging a hot lesbian that I have dated for twenty years were close to zero because she went off to marry a girl whom she has known for like two years. Okay but seriously though, I don’t envy Mariana’s situation in the slightest. As Tib says to Lister, Mariana never had choices — she was forced into marriage with a man out of financial precarity and the homophobia back then meant that the decision to live with a woman was sorely unthinkable.
Mariana may have been very nasty about Lister’s butch identity but it is genuinely terrible to know how bleak her future is now that Lister has chosen to marry Walker. It is also clear that Lister has residual feelings for Mariana — a woman she has loved since her early twenties — and finds it difficult to shake off the fiery passion of a romance that has defined most of her life. I know it seems absurd that she is so hung up on someone who has humiliated her at every turn, but lesbian loneliness means that every romantic encounter feels precious and rare. Our reduced lot in life is where all the U-haul stereotypes come from.
To make things worse, the lesbians of Halifax and beyond are collectively telling Lister that Walker is too insipid for a bold woman like her, and some of their comments have gotten into her head. Based on how the second season premiere played out, however, I do think that Lister’s doubt is rooted in the disbelief that Walker’s love is unconditional. All of her previous romantic affairs involved being denigrated even within the privacy of the bedroom — which is somehow worse than public homophobia — and the consequence of those trysts is a lingering doubt that she even deserves someone like Walker at all.
Next up in episode three: Lister and Mariana’s vexed love affair continues.
- I collapsed when I saw Walker carry Lister’s walking stick. That is how you portray butch-femme intimacy. Also Walker’s riding suit comes with a little top hat that matches Lister’s outfit. Shoutout to costume designer Tom Pye for the exquisite attention to lesbian fashion.
- Walker demanding to keep Lister’s watch is such a small detail but speaks volumes to their butch-femme dynamic. She is the only person who isn’t afraid of Lister. I have scoured the first season many times and I don’t think anyone tried to even make a joke in Lister’s presence.
- The reference to Caspar David Friedrich is very neat. I recently finished Severance and it appears that the German Romantics are all the rage now with gay people (does anyone here love Burt and Irving?).
- Tib’s iconic line, two jacks don’t suit, is a real entry in Lister’s diaries. There is a shared recognition of gender exile between Lister and Tib because of their butch identities and it is super sweet. I love how the show frames it as an inside joke that Lister enjoys, mostly because being a butch lesbian in the 1800s was an extremely lonely affair.
- On my fifteenth try and I still haven’t figured out the funky musical instrument that has been added to the series’ main title theme. If you do know, please tell me … or Murray Gold can enlighten us sometime soon with an official score release. It has been three years!