Gentleman Jack finally returned with a second season a few weeks ago and with it, new perils for Anne Lister to face. Season 1 ended with Anne Lister (Suranne Jones) and Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle) having their own pseudo-wedding ceremony and Season 2 picks up shortly after this. Anne is arranging for Miss Walker to move into her familial manor, Shibden Hall, as well as arranging for each of them to be written into the other’s will. In Season 2, we see the two women try and settle into this new life they want to create for themselves all while facing the scrutiny of Ann Walker’s family and the constant raised eyebrows Anne Lister seems to provoke wherever she goes. All this while around them the town turns to chaos in the face of an election with the civil disparities between the poor and the wealthy reaching a fever pitch. All these challenges bring out Anne’s extremely decisive nature and reveal just how limiting her personal life philosophy actually is.
Anne Lister is wealthy, even excessively so. She’s a woman of notoriety and status and that status affords her the freedom to act in many ways deem unnatural. She’s charismatic and brilliant, but her noble upbringing makes her blood run blue. She’s a Tory through and through. When the election insights public upheaval and the fallout of said election brings about a riot in the town, Anne first celebrates the Tory victory and then laments the destruction of property. She does not even stop to consider why these poor citizens may be so angry until another wealthy person suggests the unrest may be due to the harsh circumstances the lower class are forced to live and work in. Even then she steadfastly believes the Tories are the way to go, because she knows they will benefit her.
She’s content to help out the poorer people around her, provided they work for her. When her cook has hip pain, Anne offers to give the woman time off. But from the cook’s reaction, it seems she first feared Anne was firing her before more clarification illuminated that it was simply meant to be a vacation. This and her constant disregard for the feelings of her workers, exemplified in things like her giving her coachman a new name and waving around pistols in their faces, shows a clear sense of superiority from Anne. Her philosophy of always speaking one’s mind and not taking crap from anyone seems to only apply to herself.
Even when her own sister, Marian (Gemma Whelan), speaks up about marrying a local merchant, Anne refuses on principle. The suitor is not up to Anne’s standards in terms of wealth or status and Anne, without a hint of remorse, says Marian will lose any connection to Shibden and her family should she carry through with the match. The reputation of herself and those near her is too important for her to risk over something as trifling as feelings. It’s an extremely cruel action especially from someone who’s own love is one deemed inappropriate by society. But to Anne wealth is paramount, and Ann Walker gets a pass where Marian’s love does not simply because Miss Walker comes from a wealthy background.
Anne is uncompromising to a fault, refusing to even consider anything from any perspective but her own. She can not understand the societal pressure others who are not as strong-willed as her may face. She’s lost many lovers to hetero-normative society and thus blames everyone who is not as brave as her rather than the system that condemns them for being who they are. Anne Lister wants to be able to be herself but will not extend the same courtesy to others. She completely buys into the way society is structured. Everything about the world is as it should be, and the only problem is when people do not cooperate whether that is listening to her business decisions, paying her rent, marrying below their station, or doubting their devotion to her, only then will she say that something is wrong. So long as she remains on top, Anne couldn’t seem to care less about what happens to others. Aside from being unable to openly pursue women, as a wealthy landowner and woman in a privileged position there’s little she wants that she can not have she’s she’s fully content with the societal structures and prejudices that have allowed her to get to where she is. Rather than feeling a sense of solidarity with others who have struggled against unfair treatment and vilification from the world, Anne sees herself as fully separate; the only one fully justified in her actions due to her superior intellect.
Anne Lister is a hypocrite. Not just in her politics and her views on class but in her personal life. She holds Miss Walker to a standard she does not hold herself to. She reprimands and degrades Ann Walker for saying she sometimes wishes she could be a mother, despite explicitly stating she dreams this were possible without a man, and Anne takes this to be almost like a confession of cheating. Anne goes into a tizzy about how Miss Walker needs to be 100% certain of her choices, meanwhile mere weeks ago Anne cheated on Miss Walker with her old flame and still hasn’t come clean about it. She wants someone to be completely devoted to her but is incapable of extending the same favor to others. When she fails to be faithful or oversteps her boundaries in regard to Miss Walker, she believes she is worthy of forgiveness and second chances. But any time Miss Walker’s family makes untrue claims about Ann getting married and Anne expects Miss Walker to be fully accountable for that. She expects full truth from her beloved but built their entire relationship on a foundation of lies.
Anne wants and needs control over everything in her life including her lover and Ann Walker is too enamored and kind to do anything but believe in her. Yet the doubts keep piling up. The lies seep through and Ann begins to understand that Anne has a lot more experience than she let on. It makes Miss Walker feel unsettled as she thought they were both embarking on this new journey together but instead finds a trail of Anne’s discarded lovers in their wake. Anne creates a harsh double standard in their relationship where she allowed to feel threatened by Miss Walker’s old suitors (despite the woman’s repeated insistence she’s never felt attracted to men) but any time Miss Walker wants to talk about Ann’s old flings she’s abruptly shut down. The disparity in their relationship is staggering.
Gentleman Jack shows us the life of an extraordinary woman but one with a deeply flawed and selfish worldview. Anne Lister knows her value and that works to the detriment of her understanding of others. Her comfortable position in life was given to her by chance but she holds onto it like divine right. The plights of those around her are troublesome at most and only of concern to her when they directly impact her life. Anne Lister is a contradictory character who desires her own freedom but cannot imagine that freedom may look different for others. She uses her iron grip to keep those around her where she wants them and will use everything at her disposal to have her way. Being someone who has been discriminated against for her sexuality and gender has not emboldened her to create a sense of solidarity with her fellow downtrodden, instead it encouraged her to see herself as a type of exceptional minority. And unfortunately this has left Anne Lister as someone who can only extend grace to herself but not others.