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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 makes sure the child gets to a doctor, everyone gets brandy and the other passengers of the carriage – Ann Walker and her aunt – have a means to get home. In other words, she’s calm and decisive – which reminds Ann Walker’s aunt of Marian’s older sister Anne, who she seems to live in the shadow of. Marian does a lot of eye-rolling.
After the title sequence of Anne Lister putting on her fancy outfit plus top hat, she promptly arrives in town, driving the carriage herself after the driver had been injured. Gee, carriages, what a dangerous mode of transportation! Her French maid Eugénie is sick next to the carriage and Anne breaks the fourth wall to tell us: “Must be my driving.”
Anne Lister laments being back at “shabby little Shibden” with her shabby little family. There’s much excitement when she arrives – well, from some more than from others.
Apparently Briggs, the guy who collects the six-monthly rents, is ill. When Anne asks who’s going to do it, there’s nothing but crickets. So off she goes to find Briggs and his rotting leg (jeebus, that’s not what dropsy looks like on Wikipedia!) and to get the rent records from him. While she’s there, he mentions that her coal is worth a lot of money – “with all these new steam engines popping up everywhere, devouring the stuff”.
Eugénie throws up in the bushes again. This time it’s not the driving. Whenever people throw up on TV, it’s either because they’re drunk or because they’re pregnant. “Have you been drinking?” is indeed the first question of Anne’s maid Cordingley, before she realizes that she’s with child and “it’s George’s”. George, mind you, used to be Anne Lister’s groom (i. e. guy who looked after her horse) before he was shot out of a tree. He was going to marry Eugénie when they got back to Halifax, but alas, now she’s a girl in trouble in 1832. Not good.
Cordingley tries to help by inducing an abortion the old-school way: having Eugénie drink a lot of 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.) Those French women and their attitudes towards sex, tut tut. She essentially tells her she’ll lose her job if she does that, so gin it is.
Anne looks after her horse and steps over her huge, shaggy, lazy dog Argus before being told off by her sister for missing lunch. Marian also worries it might not look good if Anne is the one to collect the rents. “People talk, and it isn’t always very nice.” Should she really be doing a man’s job? Anne doesn’t seem to worry about it too much.
A lady-friend of Anne’s will come to visit “with the usual sleeping arrangements” and Anne has a moment of sadness and goes through her old diaries. These are of course the diaries the whole show is based on, with small handwriting and some of it written in code. (Presumably the juicy bits.) We learn that Anne’s other lady-friend had received a marriage proposal she wasn’t going to say no to. So that’s what went wrong in Hastings, that’s why Anne is back in Shibden.
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 has Dr. Kenny check her pulse. She might have some trauma from the accident, but nothing a jaunt to the lakes can’t fix. (Could he sign me off work for that?) She doesn’t get a word in edgewise of course what with her fretting aunt and her touchy-feely doctor who talks about her as if she weren’t in the room. Apparently her parents are dead and so is her brother, who died on his honeymoon in Naples. (Intriguing, tell me more!) Her sister lives far away. “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.
Somewhere else, the boy with the amputated leg looks sadly into the distance as Thomas Sowden, a neighbor, comes and brings a dead rabbit and a wooden soldier. The boy doesn’t say thank you on account of he’s mute since the accident.
Anne and her father go into town in matching top hats. She seems to get her style from him! He tells her not to get into coal, as it’s a nasty business. Way ahead of his time, that one!
They take seat in a pub to talk to people about their rent, and Anne is a fierce and non-wavering negotiator. She dresses down Thomas Sowden’s dad for not fixing his roof and then asking for a cheaper rent. He doesn’t like it, but she’s not intimidated. Next, she throws a fellow called Bottomley off his land because he’s old.
She wants to hire a guy called Washington to essentially replace Briggs when he dies (harsh), especially since she’s not intending to stay very long in boring ol’ Shibden. He’s confused that Shibden is hers, not her father’s, but apparently her uncle left it to her because her father has “no head for business”. Washington tells her she should mine her own coal and not lease it to the Rawsons, as they’re not pleasant people to do business with, whatever that means.
Mrs. Lawton comes to visit and she calls Anne “Freddy”. Ha, adorable. Cordingley glares in the distance. Now that she knows about the foibles, she’s somewhat bothered.
There’s a big meal for the whole family and the topic is coal pits. Marian is not convinced. It’ll be ruinous, she says, and she also seems a bit bitter that Shibden was left to Anne due to her “nefarious machinations”. Plus, Anne kicked Bottomley out! She’s venting all her anger in Mrs. Lawton’s presence, which makes me think that they must have met many times before.
Eventually, Anne and Mariana Lawton have sex – I imagine that’s their usual sleeping arrangements – and Mariana tells Anne to marry a man, as it would solve all of her problems. Maybe a gay man. Freddy won’t have any of it. She wants to live with someone she loves, which Mariana thinks is impossible, because every woman she meets will eventually marry a man. That’s 1832 for you, I guess. Anne suggests to run away to Paris with Mariana, but she’s not into it.
Washington tells Ann Walker that he’ll also work for Miss Lister in the future, and she’s keen to give him a reference. Mr and Mrs. Priestley, Ann’s cousin and his wife, are fans of Miss Lister, they “appreciate her clever mind and her adventorous spirit”. Ann soaks it all up. She still remembers when she met Anne Lister at 19. There’s a bit of swooning. We’ve not seen her as smiley as when it’s suggested they pay her a visit.
Dr. Kenny, aka Dr. Touchy-Feely, treats Aunt Lister’s leg for something and ignores any doctor-client privilege by gossipping about all his other patients. Anne listens to all the gossip before she tells him off for gossipping. She remembers the Walkers as being dull and stupid and not very pretty. But SURPRISE: They’re downstairs now, asking to be entertained.
So Anne goes downstairs, interrupts their conversation with Marian and charms their socks off. (More eye-rolling by Marian.)
Dr. Touchy-Feely asks Ann how she’s feeling, and she doesn’t even deign talk to him. Marian offers him some Madeira, but Anne sends him to check on their horse, making Ann’s day. 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!
But before we get to that, the household cries over their horse. The older Booth – there are two, Joseph and John, one who has to carry her heavy box of diaries from Halifax to Shibden and one who works at the house, constantly stumbling over things and – is supposed to shoot the poor thing, but he doesn’t have it in him. So Anne does it, as it needs to be done and as usual, there’s nobody else to do it. It’s hard being Anne Lister!