HBO Max’s Gentleman Jack sees audacious 1800s landowner and one of the first “modern lesbians”, Anne Lister (Suranne Jones), navigate her many responsibilities – including her relationship with her wife Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle) – in Halifax, England. Though the show mostly focuses on Anne’s duties as a wife, a landlord, a coal proprietor, and head of Shibden Hall, she also becomes very involved in the politics of Halifax. As Anne Lister wrote about extensively in her diaries, she was an avid Tory, which means she strongly supported inherited wealth (since she herself benefited from it) and was against the many reform movements of the time. The Tories, who mostly represented the Conservative elite in England, were also horrified by the violence of the French Revolution, and therefore of the various violent political riots that broke out like those during the “Window Breaking Election” of 1835.
The 1835 election takes place during Season 2 of Gentleman Jack, and Anne is determined to get the right amount of Conservative votes needed to fill the one open seat, as the other was inevitably going to go to the Whigs’ (or liberals’) candidate, since the nearby city of York was widely regarded as a “Whig stronghold”, according to A History of the County of York: the City of York. The Tories’ competition for the second seat is represented by the “Radical” party, who wanted factory reform, universal suffrage, and annual parliaments, though the Radicals were more “a body of opinion than a structured force” according to The Reform Bill Crisis, 1830-2 by K. Navickas. The destruction that we see in Episode 5 of Gentleman Jack was the result of the tensions between the opposing voters, with the Radicals inciting the riots (eventually, however, the Radical movement joined with the Whigs to become England’s Liberal Party).
If the Tories represented the wealthy, upper class of England and the Radicals were mostly the working class, the Whigs were somewhere in the middle. The Whig party came about around the time that the Industrial Revolution increased trade productivity, especially that of textiles in England. A large majority of the Whig party were self-made tradesmen who wanted political and social reform. Though more moderate than the Radicals of 1835, Whigs were certainly more left-leaning than Tories. In Gentleman Jack Anne refers to the parties by their colors: Tories would have been considered “Blues”, Whigs and Radicals “Yellows”, with the wearing of the color black also representing the Radicals’ cause. When Anne is walking through town after the riots, disturbed by all the destruction, some of the Radicals ask if she is wearing black for the cause. She tells them that she’s dressed in black because she is in mourning for Halifax.
In that same episode, Anne has a very meaningful conversation with John Waterhouse (Nicholas Farrell), a fellow upper class Brit and Tory. During their discussion about the riots and Halifax’s political atmosphere, after John expresses his surprise at the anger of the rioters, Anne asserts that “nothing justifies terror.” John replies,“ Hunger, poverty, the misery some people must feel in this bitter weather… Maybe it does.” John’s remarks reflect the sympathy that some Conservatives might possess, despite the majority of them – including Anne – looking down on the Radicals’ behavior. This scene also emphasizes Anne’s political position as an elite landowner who considers themselves above the less fortunate, despite the fact that it was all given to her. Like the real Anne Lister, Gentleman Jack’s Anne is unflinching in her support of Conservative causes.
In the series, Anne suggests interest in searching for tenants that will vote Tory. This was true of the real Anne Lister as well. In her diaries, Anne wrote about her desire to fill her buildings with only Conservative-leaning tenants, even threatening eviction to those who did not vote how she wanted them to, and refusing the renewal of leases to tenants who wouldn’t abide. Anne also went so far as offering a reduced annual rent to those who would find her more tenants who would agree to vote conservatively. This was all part of Anne’s efforts to fill Halifax with as many Tory supporters as possible, to keep their seat in the local government. Right now in Gentleman Jack, Anne has her sights on building a casino/inn in Halifax. In real life, Anne did fund the creation of a big inn, which she endeavored to fill with right-leaning tenants. Anne wielded her landowning powers in order to assure that the Tories maintain power in her town – and it worked. The outcome of the 1835 election saw the Tories’ candidate defeat the Radicals’ by a single vote.
Anne’s political convictions, as well as her upholding of social/hierarchical norms despite her own unique appearance and homosexuality, signify her complexity as a human being as well as a character. Marianna, one of the loves of her life, cast her aside because she did not dress or present herself as a “lady” of the time should have. She experienced that feeling of being ostracized from society, and yet can’t bring herself to understand that those living in poverty have a similar struggle that is aggravated by an even more intense physical suffering. Anne’s determination to be part of England’s high society despite her unaccepted sexuality is so strong that she hypocritically looks down on those who would be the most likely to accept her for who she really is.
As we see in her diaries, Anne is a very selfish person in all aspects of her life and has a need to be in control – of her family, her tenants, and even her wife. To allow Halifax to not be at least somewhat controlled by the Tory party, and by association Anne, would be unacceptable to her. The memory of Season 1’s extremely lovable Anne is increasingly replaced by the more complicated and morally questionable Anne of Season 2, who is more similar to her real-life counterpart.
New episodes of Gentleman Jack are released for streaming on HBO Max Mondays at 10pm.