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The first episode of Gentleman Jack begins with a carriage accident that leaves a boy with an amputated leg. As this happens near Shibden Hall, home of the Listers (who are a bit odd, we are told), Marian Lister takes charge. She’s calm and decisive in this crisis, but gets no recognition as everyone immediately starts talking about her older sister Anne Lister, who she seems to be living in the shadow of. This causes lots of eye-rolling on Marian’s part.
We soon get to meet Anne Lister, too, dressed in a fancy suit and top hat and driving a carriage recklessly through town. She’s back at “shabby little Shibden” as she calls it while looking down on her impressive estate. It may not be Paris or London, but I’d surely trade her for my apartment in no time. (I don’t have servants, but I have a Roomba.)
There’s much excitement when Anne is back; well, from some more than others.
Anne is back and springs into action. She collects her own rents (even though Marian tells her it’s a man’s job), she ruffles some feathers for kicking an older tenant off the land and not giving a discount for a damaged roof to another. I’m in awe, of course – I don’t even have it in me to tell my co-workers not to microwave fish in the office kitchen. (Note: For anyone who still doesn’t twig that Anne is unafraid and does what needs to be done, you can watch her shoot a sick horse at the end of the episode.)
Where I like to buy myself fridge magnets when I’m on vacation, Anne Lister goes all out and brings home a French maid from Paris. Eugénie spends her time looking sour and throwing up in the bushes, so we know she’s either into the booze or pregnant. Soon we learn that she’s on the booze because she is pregnant. (That’s why you’re not meant to drink gin when you’re with child, my friends.) Unfortunately it’s Geroge’s, Anne’s groom who was shot out of a tree and will therefore be unavailable for marriage or child support. So Eugénie is a girl in trouble in 1832. Not good.
We also meet the other staff in the house, one of them a nice lady called Cordingley. She’s in on the pregnancy, knows a few words of French and is supplying the gin. Eugénie wants to tell Anne Lister, since she must “understand human foibles”, considering what she gets up to with other women. Cordingley looks horrified. (Her French must be excellent.)
Speaking of human foibles, Anne’s lady-friend Mrs. Lawton comes to visit (“with the usual sleeping arrangements”) and she calls Anne Freddy. Adorable. They make out and afterwards we learn that Anne’s other lady-friend had received a marriage proposal and agreed to it. That’s what was wrong in Hastings, that’s why Anne is back in shabby Shibden. Poor Anne, surrounded by hasbians…
There’s a nice moment between Anne and her aunt. The aunt seems to be supportive of Anne and her foibles, and even though Anne says “nothing” happened in Hastings, the aunt is all like: “You know, other women have pretty daughters, too.” (Not in those words.) She says some nice things about Ann Walker, “one of the most eligible young women in Halifax”. So basically: She’s rich, you should get on that, Anne! She’s not quite the full shilling, but she could need someone who looks after her. I like this scene and the connection these two have.
Meanwhile, Ann Walker is being checked out by touchy-feely Dr. Kenny. He talks to her aunt as though she isn’t in the room. Her parents and brother are dead and her sister moved away, so she is a bit sad and lonely – or as they diagnose in those days, she has a weak spine. “Sometimes the best thing one can prescribe isn’t medicine but a little bit of adventure,” says the doctor. I guess they didn’t have medicinal cannabis in those days.
Also happening: Anne hires a guy called Washington to be her eyes and ears when she is away. He also advises her on her coal, which is very valuable, and tells her not to do busiss with the Rawsons. Anne’s father tells her not to go into coal, as “it’s a nasty business.” Way ahead of his time, that one!
Finally, just as Anne Lister is reminiscing with her mother and Dr. Touchy-Feely about how dull and unpretty Ann Walker and her family are, SUPRISE! They are downstairs and want to be entertained. So Anne goes downstairs, interrupts their conversation with Marian and charms their socks off. (More eye-rolling by Marian.)
It’s very enjoyable, this flirting of the 1800’s. And here goes her internal monologue, presumably straight out of the diaries:
Thought I to myself, shall I make up to Miss Walker? Though she’ll scarcely understand it herself, I can see that the poor girl already seems thoroughly in love with me, and what she lacks in rank, she certainly makes up for in fortune.
And suddenly her plans are changing: Maybe she’ll stay in Shibden after all and make Ann Walker her wife. Good luck, Anne!