‘Gentleman Jack’ – Lesbian Grief Without Catharsis (Review)

“I am not the other woman, she is.” — Mariana Lawton (Season 2, Episode 4 of Gentleman Jack)

Everything in the fourth episode of Gentleman Jack’s second season is driven by lesbian grief. It is the show’s finest hour yet, with Anne Lister (Suranne Jones) and Mariana Lawton (Lydia Leonard) reminiscing the lives they never got to live, and the futures that simply weren’t available for lesbians in the 19th century. While the series has been praised for its dazzling portrayal of lesbian joy – much less has been said about its equally evocative and tender portrayal of lesbian grief and loneliness.

Taking a walk in the garden at Lawton hall, Mariana laments to Lister that they are walking in circles, trying to find out where it all went wrong. It is a simple question that ensues after a break-up. But in the context of the 1800s when lesbians could be punished with a forced trip to the asylum — what truly happened to Ann Walker after Lister’s untimely death — what is wrong is a world that annihilates lesbian existence. Ensnared in the trappings of a failed love affair, both women blame each other for the choices they have made: Lister chose to marry Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle) and Mariana chose to marry Charles Lawton (Rupert Vansittart). The unspoken truth of their relationship — the one that is too hurtful to acknowledge — is that lesbian desire condemned them to a life where the only choices are bad ones. The fourth episode makes Lister’s affair with Mariana the inevitable culmination of a love persistently destroyed by forces beyond their control. It is a devastating portrait of lesbian desire that goes beyond a reductive indictment of Lister’s actions as deserving of our hatred. Beneath Lister’s affair with Mariana is a violent undercurrent of homophobia that drove them apart — only that both women are too wounded to accept that there is no escape from heartbreak.

Suranne Jones as Anne Lister and Lydia Leonard as Mariana Lawton in Gentleman Jack (COURTESY: HBO)

I have always thought that there is a difference between realizing your sexuality and the consequent acceptance that this is your sad lot in life now. I have accepted that I am a lesbian. But every homophobic incident ignites a fresh hurt that comes with repeatedly realizing my sexuality entails lifelong punishments that I don’t deserve. It soon became easier to believe that I do deserve it just to avoid dealing with the unending grief of injustice. The specific pain of having to make yourself smaller just so you can take up more space in the world is unbearable. But Lister has channeled this pain into a proud refusal to compromise: she ruthlessly takes up space in order to provide Walker with an image of their life together. Believing that her lovers ought to rise above it, Lister accuses Mariana of being insipid enough to accept Charles. But Lister selectively forgets how her strength is driven by a reservoir of pain that is only barely concealed at this juncture of her life.

Mariana sees through Lister’s hypocrisy. She recounts the times when she was punished by her parents for being friends with Lister when they were young adults. She speaks about braving their homophobia towards Lister’s butchness. They were only young lesbians who couldn’t possibly have understood how love and desire have life-changing stakes. After all, Mariana was forced to marry Charles when she was only twenty-six to avoid being cut off from her inheritance. In response, Lister makes a sweepingly romantic display of butch lesbian passion:

I would’ve conquered empires for you. I would’ve made it answer. We wouldn’t have starved, not even remotely. But you doubted me. You’ve always doubted me.

Lister’s speech highlights the sheer courage required to make lesbian marriage real in an era when there was no blueprint for lesbian existence. It celebrates the bravery of butch lesbian desire and this celebration is rarely seen on-screen. Yet, the cruel irony is precisely this: how is Mariana supposed to believe in Lister when there were no images of their tomorrows? This is an episode that turns the estrangement between partners into a devastating tragedy that has begun long before their relationship. In-between two hundred years ago and this present, the catharsis never quite arrives. We continue grieving the pasts and futures that we will never get to experience.

Lydia Leonard as Mariana Lawton and Suranne Jones as Anne Lister in Gentleman Jack taking the sacrament of shame (COURTESY: HBO)

Mariana’s off-handed comment about walking in circles becomes a permanent life sentence as their relationship concludes with Lister telling Mariana: “We are where we are.” It is a line that brings out the utter futility of their arguments with each other — they are where they are because there is no other place or time where lesbian desire can possibly exist. Identity liberates as much as it imprisons, and the episode embraces Lister and Mariana’s journey to accepting the cruelty of their fates.

The imprisonment that both Lister and Mariana feel is most apparent in their sex scene. On a surface level, this scene functions as an indictment on Lister’s loyalty to Walker. But it also felt like the desperate actions of two women who will never get recompense for the injustice they face. Even the brief few seconds of their affair is interrupted by scenes of Charles discussing William IV’s dismissal of Lord Melbourne in December 1834 with other men in the room downstairs – a place where both Lister and Mariana will never be invited into as women and as lesbians. Their private betrayal is first and foremost the consequence of a public betrayal. With an abundance of empathy and compassion, the series never lets us forget the violent circumstances which forced both Lister and Mariana to grieve the loss of their relationship.

In Gentleman Jack, lesbians inhabit a suffocating present stifled by the desperate wish for a future that will never arrive. Every character wonders what could have been if their love wasn’t a punishable act. Mariana could have had Lister forever. Lister could have settled down sooner with a woman she loves before her untimely death. All these futures remain unrealized because of who they are. We know what happened to Walker after Lister’s death in 1840. Her tragic fate looms over the series, which ultimately lives on borrowed time. These lesbians did not have a happy future together. But Gentleman Jack lets us know that their sadness and despair is worthy of representation.

Suranne Jones as Anne Lister in Gentleman Jack (COURTESY: HBO)

At the end of it all, Lister goes home to Walker. Mariana goes home to Charles. Everything has changed but nothing really has. Lister attends a meeting dominated by men. Just before she leaves the town hall, a disgruntled business rival calls her a jack with a tone of disgust and malice. Her face falls for a moment before she walks out into a crowd that is repulsed by her existence. Everyone turns away from her. She tries to ignore them but the damage is already done. To commit to a woman for life is a world-altering event. As Lister tells Mariana about Walker’s bravery:

She committed to me. She braved the world’s opinion just to be with me. And I shall respect that, above all things, until the day I die. You know the thing about Miss Walker is that I never once, not ever, got the impression that she was embarrassed by the way I look. Not just what I wear, but my manner, the way I walk — everything.

Walker chose to upend her whole life to be with Lister. Disowned by her family and everyone she cares about, her unwavering commitment to Lister is a courageous defiance in spite of a history of lesbian grief. The impoverished imagination which stifles lesbian existence makes Walker’s love for Lister miraculous. While Lister grieves the end of a tumultuous affair, a new one has already begun to take root, even if it is a love she can’t quite recognize as love yet.

Sophie Rundle as Ann Walker in Gentleman Jack (COURTESY: HBO)

In contrast to Mariana’s shame over Lister’s butchness, Walker passionately defends Lister’s identity to the whole world — she shuts down both men and women for insulting Lister’s manners and appearances, proclaiming that Lister is the one person who makes her happy. It shouldn’t matter that no one wants them to be together. But Gentleman Jack always reminds us that it does matter – that Lister and Walker’s relationship is a rare instance of lesbian autonomy and unconditional love. The episode’s focus on the downfall of Mariana and Lister’s affair serves to bring out the courage that it took for Walker to fully commit to a woman for eternity — something that goes overlooked when we focus on the trail that Lister blazed for lesbians.

In episode four, Gentleman Jack paints an eviscerating portrait of lesbian grief without catharsis. There is a deep sense of injustice which fuels the show’s portrayal of lesbians — a sincere wish that the world could have been kinder to both Lister and Mariana. I am happy to be able to watch it.

Rating: 10/10

Check Out: Tripe and Ex-Girlfriends All Over the Place, Presumably in ‘Gentleman Jack’ (Recap)

Lesbian Minutiae

  • The episode opens with Mariana insulting Lister for marrying Walker. Lister tells her that if she truly wanted to go through a hate crime, she could have just walked out of her house. A concise distillation of the butch lesbian experience.
  • I pray for the day that Marian Lister (Gemma Whelan) is free from riding the britzka with Captain Lister (Timothy West). Any more trips on that vehicle and she’s gonna explode like the cow in episode three.
  • Lister reads Mariana’s letters to Walker and reads Walker’s letters to Mariana. There is nothing like a lesbian verbal threesome to dial up on the jealousy and regret.
  • There is a brief scene when Mariana sorrowfully looks at Lister livening up the whole room with her intelligence in theology and politics. She realizes that she is losing a world of choices. It is not a moment of jealousy but loneliness and despair, which leads to their eventual affair.
  • The transition from Lister’s face of shame to her fourth-wall break at a business meeting is spectacular — a private lover’s betrayal and the public exclusion of women from the political sphere is connected. Lister looks at us in silence. We are the only ones who witnessed her affair with Mariana, and that in itself is a sadness. It is a lonely shame and burden to carry. Who knows what might have happened if lesbians were allowed love openly?

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