Suranne Jones and Sophie Rundle give their most heart-rending performances yet in episode 4 of Gentleman Jack, when a chilling secret threatens to tear Anne Lister and Ann Walker apart.
In the last episode we got roses, and in this episode came the thorns.
We always knew our heroine’s love for wealthy heiress Ann Walker would come with its fair share of obstacles – this is a 19th-century society in which the word lesbian doesn’t even exist, after all – yet up until now their tentative secret romance just added to the excitement.
But in episode 4 we get a serious reality check: it’s clear that women, especially women who love women, are never really safe in a world that lends so much power to men.
Here are five things we learned:
Anne and Ann are in very real danger
After everyone’s least favourite busybody, Eliza Priestley, bursts in on the lovers in episode 3, it’s not long before she’s told half of Halifax about it.
As self-empowered as Anne Lister is, she’s not stupid: she knows that living openly as a lesbian will incur abuse and disgust from high society and lead to many doors being slammed in her face – and Anne is an ambitious woman.
She urges Ann to “behave as normal” to try to quell the rumours, but we quickly realise that there is a threatening undertone to the gossip flying around the town. Mrs Priestley references the “two men who were hanged” recently and Ann’s aunt and uncle use an accusatory and hostile tone to suggest Anne has their niece “under her spell”.
The deep-rooted homophobia within society is starting to overshadow the love story – and it’s sadly all too relevant.
They weren’t too hot on mental health in 1832
Wow, do these 19th-century doctors have a lot to learn.
We’ve had a vague sense that Ann Walker is regarded as weak or fragile by many people, and there has been odd mentions of her needing to see the local doctor about “nerves, a nerve thing, nervy business” – whatever that means.
However, after news of a friend’s death sends her into a panic, Anne suggests she visit a well-respected doctor and asks how she can help her lover to recover.
This supposedly genius doctor comes up with the diagnosis of “nervous hysteria” – ye olde manspeak for ‘over-emotional woman’ – but his suggestion that Anne is the “best thing that ever happened to her” seems to be about right. As we see at the end of this episode, Anne is the most supportive and understanding companion Ann Walker has ever had.
Poor Marian can’t catch a break
Oh Marian. Not only must you live in your sparkling sister’s shadow, you must also live in it alone.
After their bust-up in the last episode, Marian comes to Anne with an unusual peace offering: she offers to sew her some underwear. She also reacts warmly to the idea of Ann moving in to Shibden Hall, which we think is pretty cool of her.
But Anne doesn’t reciprocate this sisterly feeling when mention of Marian’s prospective beau (“But Jeremy, he makes carpets,” Aunt Anne bemoaned when Marian tried to get her father’s blessing), instead sneering at his lowly career.
“I must question the pedigree of a man who makes rugs,” sniffs Anne. Brutal.
Nothing gets in the way of Anne’s ambition
Still battling with the villainous Rawson brothers over her coal pits, Anne decides she must become fully educated on mining if she is going to outwit them. Even amid serious upset in her personal life, she’s all business.
She demands to be taken down a pit, where she gets her hands dirty and talks business, much to the bemusement of the workers – one of which keeps calling her “Mister”.
The experience bolsters her confidence in beating the Rawsons at their own game and regaining control of the coal on her estate. As her lawyer tells her: “Christopher Rawson is a bully. But if anyone is equal to him, it’s you.” We feel a win coming on.
Ann’s tragic secret ultimately brings them closer
The bomb of the episode arrives in the form of a letter to Ann from Reverend Ainsworth, who tells her that his wife – her friend – has died.
This throws Ann into a downward spiral, which we first assume to be about the bereavement. But it soon emerges that the reverend wants to marry Ann while his poor wife is still warm in the ground.
At first, this rattles Anne, and her jealousy is evident. She sarcastically tells Ann to consider the proposal, which would mean she could marry, have children and “really fulfil your destiny on this planet as a woman”.
But then the awful truth comes out, that Ann has been raped and abused by Reverend Ainsworth and now feels “under an obligation to him”.
Her turmoil is enough to make you shed an angry tear, and that’s exactly what Anne does as she comforts and reassures her lover that she will protect her at all costs.
“What are you going to do to him?” Ann asks. “I haven’t decided yet,” Anne says menacingly to camera. We can’t wait to see him get what he deserves.
Gentleman Jack continues next Sunday at 9pm on BBC One
Images: BBC One