‘Gentleman Jack’: How a 19th Century Lesbian’s Coded Diary Became an HBO Series

Creator Sally Wainwright and lead actress Suranne Jones discuss the new period drama

Gentleman Jack Suranne Jones

In 1832, Anne Lister knew that if the wrong pair of eyes landed on her long-kept diary, she would be ostracized — it was a detailed log of everything from the weather to her sexual encounters with women, at a time when same-sex relationships were unacceptable to most of society.

So she wrote parts of the diary in a secret code.

Cut to the 1990s, when a fellow resident of Halifax, England discovered the 27-volume, 5-million-word diary of the woman the BBC and others have described as Britain’s “first modern lesbian.” Screenwriter Sally Wainwright decided to turn Lister’s story into a TV show — “Gentleman Jack” will premiere on Monday on HBO. It gets its title from the nickname townspeople were said to have given Lister due to her penchant for dressing all in black and refusal to conform to the traditional women’s clothing of the time.

Drawing on Lister’s own words sets “Gentleman Jack” apart from historical reenactments and period pieces that rely on secondhand sources.

“It’s interesting how frank it is in talking about her sexual relationships,” said Wainwright, the show’s creator, director, writer and executive producer. “It’s the outpourings of a compulsive writer, essentially, and a very passionate and intelligent woman.”

Though Wainwright can read Lister’s code, she hired a historical advisor to expedite the process of deciphering never-before-read sections as they were filming. Actress Suranne Jones (“Doctor Foster,” “Scott & Bailey”), who plays Lister, recalled moments when filming would be interrupted by breaking news from the 1800s.

“We would get an email ping through bits of the diary that had just been freshly decoded, and then we could use them, kind of live, as we were filming,” Jones said. “Every time I got a scene where Sal would say, ‘This came direct from the diary,’ it would just fill me with a kind of emotion really, because you’re using her words.”

The eight-part series takes place in 1832, when Lister returns to her ancestral home at Shibden Hall in Halifax after years of traveling abroad to take over her family’s land-leasing business. Soon, the charismatic and fearless Lister begins her courtship with Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle), a wealthy but lonely heiress. But as townspeople start to draw conclusions about the nature of their relationship, Lister uses her sharp wit and iron conviction to demand respect and outsmart the men who try to bring her down.

In recent years, the once-homophobic English community where Lister lived has evolved. In July of 2018, a rainbow plaque was installed in Lister’s honor at the Holy Trinity Church in Yorkshire, where she and Walker had a private marriage ceremony in 1834, according to the Halifax Courier. The plaque has since been updated following a petition to rightfully include the word “lesbian” in describing Lister, who “took sacrament here to seal her union with Ann Walker,” according to the plaque.

Ahead of the show’s premiere on Monday, Wainwright and Jones discussed deciphering the code, and how they broached modern topics like sexual assault in the context of the 19th century.

TheWrap: How long have you known about Anne Lister’s diaries?

Wainwright: I became aware of the fact that Anne Lister was a diarist kind of in the 1990s. It was very difficult to find out information about her. I grew up in Halifax, so I knew Shipben Hall very well, but didn’t know Anne Lister and I didn’t know that she’d owned Shibden Hall. And I read a book in 1998, Jill Liddington’s “Female Fortune,” and that was the first time I got a big hint of who this woman was, and just how extraordinary the journal is. And it’s interesting how frank it is in talking about her sexual relationships. But just the hugeness of the diaries — it’s a massive document, 27 volumes, 5 million words. It’s the outpourings of a compulsive writer essentially, and a very passionate and intelligent woman.

How closely did you stick to the original text when making “Gentleman Jack,” and how much did you have to play with to make it relatable to modern audiences? 

Wainwright: It’s very much all taken from the diary. I have taken some poetic license in some of the dramatization, but by and large I believe it’s a very authentic representation of what the diary consists of, and I think it’s a very accurate portrait of her. I hope it’s a portrait of her that she herself would recognize.

Jones: When we were on set, we would get an email ping through from an historical advisor who was decoding [the diary] at the time, as Sally was obviously busy directing or writing and producing and being our creator. [They] would ping through these new bits of the diary that had just been freshly decoded, and then we could use them, kind of live, as we were filming. And every time I got a scene where Sal would say, “This came direct from the diary,” it would just fill me with a kind of emotion really, because you’re using her words within some of Sally’s themes, and that was magical. As part of the research we were allowed into the Halifax library to take out some of the artifacts, one being the diary, which was really beautiful actually. It had a marble casing to hold it. Sally can read the code actually, she leaned over my shoulder and read the code for me. It was just a wonderful experience. And then of course we filmed in Shibden hall where Anne actually lived. We were in a very privileged position for the whole eight months to be that close to her every day on set.

How difficult is it to read the code?

Wainwright: Well, I taught myself in one afternoon, but that tells you more about my obsession that anything else. I think you have to be quite obsessed to learn to read, it but once you have worked it out, its what’s called substitution cypher, so it’s actually quite simple. For instance, A-E-I-O-U is 2-3-4-5-6, so there’s a clear symbol for every letter… There are a few vagaries within it but its actually quite simple once you get to grips with it.

Jones: Sally says that, but she’s actually quite extraordinarily bright.

Sally, how did you know that Suranne was the right person to play Anne Lister?

Wainwright: I think what Suranne has in common with Anne lister, in a way that’s really uncanny, is physical and mental energy. When we started rehearsing, I was blown away by how quickly Suranne was so emotionally articulate about Anne Lister — it’s like she had a massive insight. I’ve spent 20 years on this woman, and then Suranne would come in and tell me 5 things I hadn’t thought of.  But also, Anne Lister was extraordinarily physically fit… she once talked about walking 25 miles in the Welsh hills. She was taken by a guide and she wore him out, he couldn’t keep up with her. Suranne has that fantastic physical fitness. She also has a quickness of mind — she has a fast working brain like Anne Lister with the ideas pinging out of her.

Suranne, this must feel like the role of a lifetime for you. 

Jones: Yeah it does. I’m a 40-year-old actress who is always looking for roles that will challenge me, that are important enough to take me away from my 3-year-old. This is an important historical figure, and I think the older I get I want to look for roles that speak to people and are not just are frivolous entertainment.

What’s your favorite part about playing her?

Jones: I think the energy, the fact that she is so positive. The whole show is quite life affirming in a way, and I think we’re predetermined to be quite negative as human beings. Playing someone who is so upbeat most of the time was a really great thing to do because no matter how I was feeling going into work in the morning, Sally [would say], “Walk faster, be bigger, think faster, be brighter.” It was just a joy really. A complete joy. 

You broached some very modern topics in the context of 1832 — not only what it was like to be a lesbian, but you also broach the very timely topic of sexual assault. How did you go about that?

Wainwright: It’s all from the journal. I didn’t invent anything in that story — the only little poetic license is that Anne Lister never met Thomas Ainsworth, so the conversation that takes place outside of the [house] didn’t really happen. But the content from the conversation is all taken — she dealt with him in correspondence, she wrote some very clear letters to him about exactly what she knew and what would happen if he showed up. But the story’s very much there in the journal. I kind of interpreted it a bit, the Anne Lister deciding that Ann Walker had been raped. The word “rape” is never used [in the journal], for me, that’s a very fair interpretation of that relationship between Ms. Walker and Thomas Ainsworth, that he took advantage of her and persuaded her against her wishes to have sex with him. And what’s wonderful about Anne Lister, she comes in and says, “No, you were raped. It’s that simple. Again, that’s in the journal — she very clearly interprets what for Ann Walker was quite a confusing incident in her life.

“Gentleman Jack” premieres Monday at 10/9c on HBO.