“Gentleman Jack” Invents The Endless Lesbian Breakup

It is, of course, the law that all lesbian break-ups must last at least two (2) full days and include eight (8) attempts at getting back together. Everyone knows that. What most people don’t know, however — and what Gentleman Jack reminded us this week — is that Anne Lister and Mariana Lawton originated the lesbian breakup in the early 1800s, at which time they set the record of breaking up for 17 entire years. It’s even messier than it sounds because they’ve got two decades worth of written letters and Anne’s meticulous diary entries to work from, so nothing is forgotten or even smoothed around the edges. It’s as jagged and painful as it ever was.

They shout accusations at each other with dates and times. Like, “In 1820, at your parents’ garden party, you insulted my suspenders!” And, “You flirted with my sister in 1824, at the Pig’s Belly Inn in York!” On and on and on, re-litigating their worst behaviors and impulses from birth onward. The bottom line, for Anne Lister, is that Ann Walker committed to her. She’s the first person in Anne’s whole life who braved society’s reproach and moved herself and her stuff (some of it; all of it wouldn’t fit) into Shibden Hall. And Anne is determined to honor that commitment.

Anne and Mariana sit in a luxurious dining room

I can tell you’re looking at that woman’s boobs in that painting, Anne! What about MY boobs!

Mariana employs several strategies in her arguments with Anne: She reminds her of the commitment they made to each other, but Anne says that’s null and void because it’s been too long and Charles still won’t die. She calls Ann Walker a bunch of names and insists, repeatedly, that she’s not intellectually curious enough, well-spoken enough, well-mannered enough, well-traveled enough, mentally stable enough, etc. for Anne. She says Anne only “loves” her because her true passion is amassing a Scrooge McDuck amount of wealth. She even does the most dramatic interpretive reading of a casual letter Ann sends over to let her wife know how things are going at Shibden, acting like Ann wrote it in crayon and can’t even spell her own name.  Finally, when all else fails, she takes Anne on a brisk walk (her second favorite thing) and seduces her (her first favorite thing). Anne resists the first night, but gives in on the second night.

Mariana wakes up satisfied and ready to go to church with her ex- and maybe current girlfriend, surely hoping the vicar will preach from Hosea, talking about, “Go, take to yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord!!!!”

Anne reads Ann's letter while Mariana stares at the camera

RIP Mariana, you would have loved Taylor Swift.

Anne mostly feels like garbage, as she should.

Because Ann Walker is being awesome back in Halifax! She’s playing cards with the Listers, and allowing herself to feel affection and general amusement for the whole family, even though they are very bad at cards and keeping secrets. She paints beautiful pictures of their time in the Alps. She weather’s Marian’s visit to her worst aunt, and graciously accepts her aunts lukewarm regards when Marian returns. She enjoys a tiny bit of idle gossip with the girls over tea. And she turns down the cousin or uncle or whoever it is that shows up, looking handsome and acting pretty humble actually, to ask her to marry him. Mr James Ingham, of the Mr. Bingley Austen Archetype Index. She says, “It’s a no from me, though. I really am very happy here.” And mostly she is! She does sleep on Anne’s side of the bed, though, and worries, at least a little bit, about the cheating happening down the road at the Lawton’s place.

Before Anne leaves Mariana’s, she tells her to be careful what she puts in her letters, because she shows them all to Ann. This just ignites Mariana’s misery all over again and she yells that she is not the Other Woman! She is the Original Woman! It’s Ann Walker who is the Other Woman! And she got her a patronizing little pocket book as a gift, just to drive the point home. Anne doesn’t open it, but I bet you one whole entire pig that it’s like a sparkly Hello Kitty change purse.

Anne and Ann kiss in bed

Okay but I *will* have some follow-up questions tomorrow, Anne.

When Anne’s carriage pulls up in front of Shibden that night, the servants go running out to greet her so they don’t get yelled at. And Ann goes running out to meet her because she just can’t help herself. She’s so happy her wife is home! And, honestly, maybe for the first time in her life, Anne is happy she’s home too. When we first met her, the first words out of her mouth, after yelling about how no one else would rise to the occasion of driving the carriage after the groom broke is clavicle, was that Shibden was shabby and so was her family. But what she really meant is that Shibden is always the place she has to run back to after her Mrs. Lawtons and Miss Hobart and etc. break her heart. Her wife is here now. Her actual wife! She has one quick cup of tea and whisks her wife up to bed.

Anne says almost the exact thing to Ann that she said on top of that pit at the end of season one, that she really missed her. Anne says, “Really?” And then Ann says more, says it all, says, “I love you.”

And this time, she really does seem to mean it.

A man yells at Anne Lister at a business meeting

You seem to know a lot about the inner workings of this committee. I’d like to know where you got your information!

Anne Lister, in her top hat, smirks at the yelling man

From your wife.

The next day Anne goes to a meeting about whether or not Halifax is going to get some trains or keep hauling their coal around by boat. Anne Lister speaks up in a room full of men and gets her way. For her effort, one of the Yellows escorts her to do the door and calls her Gentleman Jack. She glares at him and marches off into the street, striding past everyone as they stare and point and move out of her way. Same as Mariana did all those years ago. But not Ann Walker. Ann has loved her always, just the way she is.


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Heather Hogan

Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle senior editor who lives in New York City with her wife, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. She's a member of the Television Critics Association, the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer critic. You can also find her on Twitter, and Instagram.

Heather has written 1379 articles for us.

10 Comments

  1. sigh, anne. you were almost not a shitheel, rip your integrity.

    i am not pro-mariana at all except with respect to her absolute roasting of ann’s handwriting, which is such a relatable and justifiable frequency of petty.

    i am also not pro-ann (i cannot with any of these people i guess? although ann has certainly been gaining some sympathy points recently, if nothing else), but that briefest of expressions on her face when anne came home and was kissing her and telling her how much she loved her–that moment of knowing for sure what she’d suspected and feared–was a little heartbreaking.

    • I also like Ann/Mariana together actually. They’re both drama drama and Marianna was very young when she made the decision to marry Charles. And I’m not sure Mariana is wrong in her assessment if Ann’s marriage to Anne or Anne’s character in general

  2. This season of this show has truly triggered me in ways that I do not accept or appreciate.

    I had a Mariana. We were in our mid-20s when we met, had full time budding careers, and lived on our own but our families had heavy influence over us. We snuck around for 2 years before a series of events outed me and she ghosted me because she feared being outed because she was afraid that in the eyes of others our outward tangential association would point to her being gay too.

    3 years later, after intensive therapy and familial upheaval and acceptance, I finally got in the groove of being out and dating and she calls out of the blue. After talking as “friends” for a bit, we were back “together” but she still wasn’t out and had no intention of being so. Going back in the closet was rough but I told myself that those 4 – 8 hour blocks of bliss were more than worth it. For the next 5 years we were stuck in a cycle between sneaking around and being crazy in love and her getting spooked and ghosting me.

    In between, I did meet someone that I cared a lot about. My connection with her was nothing like what I had with my ex but it was really nice and I was happy. Through another series of events my ex reappeared in my life and we agreed to just be friends. My gf was ok with because she was still good friends with her ex and she trusted me. Eventually my ex started hanging out with me, my gf and our friends. I thought it was innocuous but the energy between us was offputting to everyone even though our interactions were sparse. I ended the friendship because of that but it didn’t save my relationship. I may not have physically cheated but my gf realized that I could never really be with her.

    12 years I actively and passively waiting for her. 12 years of begging her to be brave enough to defy her family and her own internalized homophobia to be with me. After coming to that realization, I changed my number and moved. It’s been 1.5 years since I cut all ties. I know through various channels that she’s not married but her family is still pressuring her. The saddest thing is I miss her so much and I can’t even say I wouldn’t take her back if she were ready to be out and in a real relationship with me.

    I get the hold that Mariana has over Anne and I understand how that undeniable connection drove Anne to do things that went against her better judgment and principles. When someone is in your DNA it’s hard to extract them even when you know better.

    • What a fantastic, honest and searing comment. My heart aches for you, thank you for sharing. You perfectly illustrate that dynamic – how internalised (albeit also externalised in GJ world) homophobia metastasises into the perpetual hungry ghost, and how it underpins so many actions and reactions that seem irrational or selfish from the outide.

  3. Speaking of petty— I have one Very Tiny Complaint about this show: I cannot stand Anne’s primary hairstyle. It’s distracting in its fugliness. [Damn, whenever Anne just pulls her hair back in a simple loose ponytail? THAT is a Win!]

    Except for that, I love everything about this show—including how it shows all of Anne’s moral warts. When they’re discussing the Lawton’s lazy employee, which they got from Shibden? OK, laziness not good. Then when you see her, and she’s about **11 years old**!!!! Why TF is she not in SCHOOL, where she belongs? [At home w/ her family, where she belongs?] Oh, that’s right, peasants—most of all peasant girls—don’t get a childhood, much less a proper education. [How dare she learn her letters, for reading {gasp} novels? Next thing you know, she’ll be organizing a union and going on hunger strike for the right to vote…]

    Great show. I’m sorry I didn’t see S1, but I’m only seeing S2 by act of cable wrinkle, so I should just be grateful I can see it for now…

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