“I can be as a meteor in your life.” – Anne Lister (Season 2, Episode 6)
Towards the end of Season 2, Episode 6 of Gentleman Jack, Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle) offers Anne Lister (Suranne Jones) proof of their future together through a tender touch. She understands that Lister’s outrage conceals a real sadness for what she cannot provide her lovers: motherhood and a concrete image of their future together. On the surface, it appears that Lister and Walker are arguing over their conflicting desires for motherhood. What is actually driving their heated conversation, however, is the ongoing struggle to believe that their love even matters – to them and to a world which has forced them to live in secrecy. Lister and Walker have been performing the non-existence of their relationship in every episode thus far in the season: the thirteen house visits to Walker’s relatives in episode three highlights how lesbians have to enact their insignificance to avoid persecution. But performance becomes real as decades of exhaustion wear down a relationship that requires constant strength to survive. As Lister’s facade of bravery falls apart, fissures begin to appear in a secret marriage that sustains on lesbian courage alone.
A meteor that burns bright is destined towards destruction. After time, Lister is crumbling from the cruel brunt of constantly creating possibilities and getting nothing back. She is a butch lesbian who knows that women can be more of everything. When Walker’s illness placed her at risk of being put into a female asylum, Lister lovingly took care of her till she was well again. When Walker cries about not being strong enough to deal with homophobia, Lister reminds her that it is always a brave thing to commit to a woman for life. Because only a lesbian would know what being utterly erased feels like – Lister’s first priority is for Walker to feel seen as she is, even if it’s just by one person in the entire world. The pain and anger that Lister feels isn’t about their conflicting opinions on parenthood at all. It is about not being able to make Walker happy enough to stay in a lesbian marriage that doesn’t exist.
Without a legally binding document or the bond of a child to affirm their relationship, Lister and Walker’s marriage is only real insofar that they believe it is. Lister’s frustrating insistence that Walker must change her will so that they can merge their estates reveals less about her impatience than it does the abject loneliness and insufficiency of lesbian existence. There is nothing stopping Walker from marrying a man, having children, and living a more respectable life. It has happened to Lister when Mariana Lawton (Lydia Leonard) and Vere Hobart (Jodhi May) eventually chose marriage, and she is afraid that it will happen again. For all her lesbian exploits, Lister does not know what it means to share a life with a woman. She understands that she can give her lovers what women are cruelly denied – a life of possibility and sincere love – but she also knows that her love may not measure up to the temptations of motherhood.
We do things for us, so that we can have a life together – we matter. We can never have a piece of paper that says we have any kind of legal union to bind us, neither can we have the bond a child would give us. You have to be certain that this, here with me, is what you want.
In an era when there was no blueprint for lesbian existence, all Lister can do is imagine what her future with Walker might look like, and hope that Walker believes that they matter enough to sacrifice what she can concretely gain from marriage – children and a life free from humiliation. As a dogged pragmatist, the necessity of faith is beyond frustrating for Lister. She courted Walker for her wealth because that is what people did back then to improve their lot. She collects her rents and turns out every inch of her land for money because it would be unwise not to (well, also because she wants Walker to live in elegance). Realizing that she genuinely loves Walker, and that Walker loves her wholeheartedly in return, was never part of Lister’s plan, which makes Walker’s uncertainties a far greater hurt than she had ever imagined. Unlike pragmatism, love cannot be calculated away like the pounds and shillings that Lister meticulously records in her notebook – a secret lesbian marriage survives on faith alone, especially when no one else in the world wants you to be together.
Throughout its second season, Gentleman Jack has focused heavily on Lister’s frazzled and enormous business dealings. In every business transaction with male rivalries, Lister’s gender is a source of profound humiliation. She researches beforehand before barging into meetings and understands her exact lesser position – as a woman and as a lesbian – within the marketplace. Lister always has an answer – it is part of her strength as a butch lesbian. For Lister, being unable to satisfy the woman she loves reminds her of the brutal hand that God has dealt her with. Coupled with the constant public humiliation, like the letter Walker receives about Eliza Raine, Lister finally breaks down in tears. Her sudden burst of vulnerability scares Walker, who really isn’t the least bit swayed by the nasty nonsense that people spew about her wife. She is more concerned that Lister has been lying about her sexual history since the day they met – how can they both commit to one another when Lister still hides who she truly is?
When butches cry a whole world of possibility unravels. Lister wears a series of carefully curated masks to stay alive. She goes on about rising above it like it is a protective mantra which shields her from disappointment. As Lister notes in the first season, she is always all right – only that she isn’t and Walker senses it. Lister lies about her history because she is afraid of loneliness. And so Walker walks over to Lister and kisses her hand. She kisses their wedding rings and reminds Lister of their eternal commitment to one another. She gently caresses Lister’s face, and undoes her hardened demeanour. Lister and Walker’s love for each other is a radical promise of faith untethered from the law – this is more real than a child or a legally binding document. Only a femme can cut through decades of Lister’s forced strength. It is a wondrous moment, and Gentleman Jack wants us to witness every second of it.
- I broke down a little bit when Jeremy Lister (Timothy West) apologized for hurting Lister with his words. Most of us have been in a situation like that. I am glad Gentleman Jack addressed the tiny ways in which the people we love can hurt us, even if they have good intentions.
- Lister was so pleased with her letter that she broke the fourth wall … but not before her wife stops her from talking to us. Their lesbian marriage bickering is so cute.
- LOW PONYTAIL ANNE LISTER SUPREMACY !!!
- David Prosho has now turned up in Gentleman Jack for a few seconds. Avid fans of Sally Wainwright will recall that he played DC Ian Mitchell in Scott & Bailey alongside Suranne Jones’ DS Rachel Bailey. Watching Wainwright’s television is always a fun game of guessing the revolving turnstile of the five actors that she uses.
- I love it when the show just focuses on Lister walking to random places. The scene where she bumps into Walker on her rollicking stride back home sparked so much joy!