It’s not easy to describe a character as intensely original as Anne Lister, the gender nonconforming (the everything nonconforming) 19th-century protagonist in HBO’s deliciously provocative British period drama “Gentleman Jack,” which premieres Monday night on HBO. (Yes, Monday night. The buggy whips are a-crackin’ over at HBO, which is now owned by AT&T and under orders to speed up the conveyor belt, in a race to smother us all in TV shows.)
But “Gentleman Jack” is far from filler content; indeed, it’s one of the most engaging dramas to come along so far this year. At first blush, this eight-episode series may look more PBS than HBO, but the second blush is a doozy — and it would probably send “Masterpiece” pledge-drivers straight to the fainting couch.
Finely executed in conjunction with the BBC and created by Sally Wainwright (whose hits include “Last Tango in Halifax” and “Happy Valley”), the story is drawn from some 4 million words of secretly encoded diary entries written by the real Anne Lister (1791-1840), who managed to live as openly as a landowning lesbian might in the early days of the Industrial Revolution in West Yorkshire. Lister was a fascinating anomaly in her time and place — an intellectually curious, courageously uninhibited person who believed fully in the innate aspect of her sexual orientation and her right to marry another woman.
Suranne Jones (“Doctor Foster”) is downright sensational as Wainwright’s vision of Anne Lister, blowing into the small village of Halifax in 1832 with cyclone force, dressed in a tailored hybrid of haberdashery and long skirts — all in raven black, including her masculine top hat.
Accustomed to a lifetime of turned heads and whispered rumors (and a nickname that supplies the show’s title), Anne has returned from her world travels to her hometown to shake up things at Shibden Hall, the ancestral home of her aging father (Timothy West), aunt (Gemma Jones) and unmarried younger sister (Gemma Whelan). As heir, Anne takes a renewed interest in the estate’s farming and coal-mining potential, as well as the leases of its scattered tenants.
Anne is also nursing a recently wounded heart, after her last lover (Jodhi May) decided to accept a marriage proposal from a man. Consumed by resentment over society’s restrictions, Anne channels her anger into bettering Shibden’s fortunes — and soon runs afoul of the county’s magistrate and local coal magnate (Vincent Franklin), who has quietly been stealing from the Lister-owned mines.
Yet Anne’s adversaries admit she’s the most interesting person in town. “She’ve very clever, that’s why I like her,” says the amused mother of the man stealing Anne’s coal. “Her company, her conversation. . . . She’s been to so many places, done so many things. Most women are dull and stupid, but not her.”
“Happily I’m just as clever as she is,” her son replies. “And I have the measure of her.”
“I doubt it,” his mother replies.
Like all good period dramas, “Gentleman Jack” is packed with quickly paced plots and subplots, scattering its attentions along the bucolic roads, which Anne traverses in long, determinedly virile strides. One of her tenant families has a son who was gravely injured in a buggy crash; another family tries to cover up the sudden disappearance of their abusive, alcoholic husband and father. Anne’s comely French-speaking maid (Albane Courtois) is trying to keep an out-of-wedlock pregnancy secret; a widowed manservant (Thomas Howes) hopes to solve the problem by marrying the maid. And so on.
The real attraction, however, is the real attraction: No sooner has Anne moved home than she is reacquainted with the shy heiress next door, Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle), who has harbored a sort of girl crush on Anne for years. Breaking the fourth wall, Anne confides to the viewers that she, too, is smitten and intends to seduce the younger woman. In the long game, Anne conceives of a profitable future together in wedded bliss, using the Walker family fortunes to expand her mining interests.
“Gentleman Jack” is particularly canny in the way it allows Anne’s dangerous delusions (including the notion of a same-sex union) to flourish and then start to unravel by the fifth episode. Although the viewer is inclined to root for her to prevail, Anne often falls somewhat short of heroic, and that’s by design. Driven by class status, she manipulates people to get what she wants, and her obsessive pursuit of the naive Ann Walker verges on predatory.
“I love — and only love — the fairer sex,” Anne confesses to the object of her desire. “My heart revolts from any other love than this. These feelings haven’t wavered or deviated since childhood. I was born like this.”
It would take more than a century for scholars to come along and decipher the treasure of Lister’s diaries, which lend “Gentleman Jack” an impressive degree of nuance. And it is heartbreaking to watch as Jones so sharply captures Lister’s triumphs and anguish. She was born 200 years too soon, but, in a meaningful way, she’s here with us now.
Gentleman Jack (one hour) premieres Monday at 10 p.m. on HBO.