Is HBO’s ‘Gentleman Jack’ Based on a True Story?

Game of Thrones might be getting all the attention right now, but it’s not the only original show airing on HBO. Gentleman Jack, which premiered April 22, explores the life of Anne Lister (Suranne Jones), a 19th century Englishwoman who refused to play by society’s rules. While it’s set in the 1830s, it’s not your stereotypical stuffy period drama.

Was Anne Lister a real person?

Anne Lister isn’t just the creation of a modern-day screenwriter. She was a real person whose story came to light when a researcher uncovered her extensive diaries in 1983.

The diaries were written in code, but once they were deciphered, they told the story of a remarkable woman. In addition to being an ambitious businesswoman, Lister was a lesbian who was relatively open about her sexuality and who even took part in what many recognize as the first marriage between two women in the U.K. (“Gentleman Jack” was the nickname some in her hometown gave her.)

Sally Wainwright had long wanted to tell Lister’s story

English director and writer Sally Wainwright is known for creating shows like Last Tango in Halifax and Happy Valley. She’s wanted to bring Lister’s life story to the screen since first learning about her in the 1990s. Wainwright said she had a particular interest in Lister since she had grown up in Halifax, where Lister was from, and had visited her home, Shibden Hall, as a child.

“It made me fall in love with my hometown, which as a teenager, I couldn’t wait to leave,” Wainwright told Collider. “I discovered Anne Lister, and suddenly my hometown became magical to me because this extraordinary woman had lived there.”

Sally Wainwright and Suranne Jones
Sally Wainwright and Suranne Jones | Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images

While Wainwright was fascinated by Lister, others didn’t share her enthusiasm. When she first pitched the show back in 2002, no one was interested. Wainwright now says she’s glad she had to wait nearly two decades to turn her idea for Gentleman Jack into reality.

“[H]ad I got it greenlit, at that time, it would’ve been a very, very niche product,” Wainwright said. “It would’ve been hidden away on the schedule of BBC Two, rather than what it’s got now, which is a massive primetime slot and a massive American company on board, with a primetime slot. So, I don’t regret that it didn’t happen 20 years ago.”

What happened to Lister in real life?

So far, only one episode of the eight-episode series has aired, so it’s hard to say exactly how much of Lister’s life will make it into Gentleman Jack. In the show, Lister is about 40, and has just returned home after having her heart broken by a lover who decided to marry a man. She meets a wealthy young heiress who she decides she wants to make her wife. She’s also interested in mining the valuable coal that lies on her estate.

We do know that while Lister did marry, she died relatively young. She passed away in 1840 at age 49 while traveling in Russia. Her wife Ann Walker also met a sad end. After Lister’s death she was declared insane and confined to an asylum.

Gentleman Jack airs Mondays at 10/9c on HBO.

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