Gentleman Jack’s Guide to Flirting With Ladies of Fortune

I’ll never forget the first TV show that tried to show me how lesbians flirt. It was The L Word; I was 19, closeted, and renting the DVDs from Blockbuster Video, sandwiching them between romantic comedies so the checkout guy wouldn’t be creepy. The moment that stuck with me, the first lesbian I truly remember watching flirt on my little RCA TV, was Shane McCutcheon, sidling up to Lara Perkins and asking her if she had “any of those sweet little figs.”

It didn’t work on Lara, it didn’t work on me, and it would be nearly fifteen years before I would finally take notice of a lesbian who knows how to flirt well on television.

That lesbian is Anne Lister.

Anne Lister, looking to us and raising her eyebrows

HBO’s Gentleman Jack is adapted from the diaries of Anne Lister herself, and if you haven’t started watching yet, you should probably do so immediately. The first time I watched Suranne Jones strut across my TV screen as Anne, I gasped audibly just seeing the way she walked. We don’t get to see butch women on TV every day! Especially not lesbians as, well, experienced as Anne. She’s a woman who knows what she’s about, and that is never more clear than when she first sets eyes upon the woman she will soon court as a companion, a young Miss Walker, whose first name is also Ann.

Anne Lister speaking passionately to Ann Walker, as the both of them are seated close to each other on a sofa

“I dissected a baby once.”

From the minute they meet, Anne Lister’s agenda is clear — not only because she tells us as much, with entries in her diary and knowing glances toward the audience — but because she’s just so good at what they used to call “making love.” By the second time the two women meet, Anne is pulling out all the stops, dazzling Miss Walker on what is, essentially, a fantastic first date — without the younger woman even realizing what’s happened. And just when Anne hits the point of no return, she reels it back in, leaving her dear friend always wanting more, until Miss Walker is positively in over her head, and crying each time Anne goes away.

How does she do it? How, in a time when queer women so often had to live beneath the radar, did she succeed so dazzlingly with Miss Walker and all of the women before her?


Step 1: Cultivate a larger-than-life persona

Anne Lister, back to us, looking over Shibden Hall

Anne’s reputation precedes her — especially in her hometown of Halifax. Her passions and quirks have made her such a celebrity that when Miss Walker comes to stay nearby with her cousins, their first thought is to introduce her to Anne, as she “might be a friend to her.” A friend indeed!

Step 2: Light up like the sun when the young heiress comes to visit

Anne Lister beaming upon Ann Walker as she sees her for the first time since they were much younger

“Miss Walker!”

From the moment Anne turns her attention to Miss Walker, her face lights up, truly for the first time since she’s come home. From that moment on, as Anne moves about the room, Miss Walker’s face follows her like sunflowers.

Step 3: Maintain eye contact and casually touch extremities while saying the word “sex” aloud

Anne Lister maintaining eye contact with Miss Walker as she says the word 'sex' in front of their families

“I’ve been excluded from the franchise, BY MY SEX.”

I’m pretty sure this is the 19th century version of a lesbian Jedi mind trick, and it’s amazing. Anne Lister’s Meaningful Eye Contact game is truly next level, throughout the series.

Step 4: Lean in — way in

Anne Lister perched on the arm of Miss Walker's seat

Once Ann Walker enters a room, Anne Lister never breaks orbit, keeping close enough to the other woman that I found myself wondering what personal hygiene was like in Halifax in the 19th century.

Step 5: Share your passions with genuine, infectious enthusiasm

Anne Lister making a face as she talks about how great babies are

I went to Paris to study anatomy.

Anne Lister has a passion for dissection. There may be no topic more difficult from which to segue into flirting than the dissection of the human body, and yet! Anne Lister somehow moves from corpses, to the miracle of life, to the beauty of art and music and love, and she does it very nearly effortlessly.

Step 6: Show a true interest in the lady and her talents

Anne and Ann look over paintings Ann has done

“Perhaps one day, you could paint me.”

Complimenting a lady’s art is an excellent opportunity for intimacy; as she suggests a future in which Miss Walker will have to stare at her for hours, circumstances require her to hover so close that Miss Walker can surely smell the lingering vapors of mercury from her top-hat.

Step 7: Teach the lady about pockets

“Of course it’s true, it’s Paris!”

Anne explains to Miss Walker that pockets are put into men’s pants in Paris so that they may pleasure themselves, which… is that true? I just want somewhere to keep my locks of hair.

Step 8: Tell the lady you want to kiss her

Miss Walker's face as Anne Lister tells her she wants to kiss her "every time I come here"

“What do you mean?”

Step 9: Tell the lady that surely she knows what you mean

Anne Lister touches a thumb to Anne Walker's mouth and says,

“Surely you know what I mean. I think you’re a little bit in love with me.”

Step 10: Come Back Again Tomorrow

“I’ll come back again tomorrow.”

Always good to give a lady time to get used to the idea!

Step 11: Plan a trip abroad

Anne Lister and Ann Walker walking in the woods

“If — I mean, when we go to Switzerland”

Plan a whole future together, as dearest friends. Why not? You’ve nearly kissed, once! You’ve spent a handful of hours together! It’s time to book passage on a ship!

Step 12: Take the lady to a cabin in the woods, where she can tell you she’s not afraid of kissing

Anne Lister kissing Miss Walker's hand in the Snow White fuck cabin

“It doesn’t frighten me.”

Anne thoughtfully closes the shutters before their first kiss, which is gorgeously, elaborately slow.

Step 13: Propose to the lady

Anne Lister proposing to Ann Walker

“It would be like a marriage — quite as good, or better!”

If we hadn’t known that this situation was extremely gay already, confirmation certainly comes when Anne Lister all but gets down on one knee and proposes a lifelong partnership! Harold! They’re lesbians!

Step 14: Go upstairs

Anne Walker and Ann Lister in bed

“Shall we go upstairs?”

Reader, THEY WENT UPSTAIRS!


So there you have it — our heroines go from meeting to contemplating virtual marriage in the course of just three episodes. Anne Lister is a lesbian who knows what she’s about, and personally, I’d take her over Shane and those “sweet little figs” any day of the week.

Queer Girl is your number one fan. She's a fat feminist from California who doodles hearts in the corners of her Gay Agenda. She's working on a children's book, she's on Twitter, and she thinks you should drink more water! She also wants to make you laugh.

queer has written 129 articles for us.

83 Comments

  1. (Okay, I’m that asshole re-posting a comment from another article b/c that one is old and I really want to talk about this, please excuse me.)

    I don’t want to be the downer, but I’m kind of surprised at the positive reaction to this show. I find kind of everything about Anne Lister’s politics repulsive. She’s against the vote for people who don’t own land, is deeply classist and capitalist, and probably has seriously shitty race politics (not that they’ve put those on screen yet). She treats women almost like a modern day pick-up artist would, and chooses her future wife based on her wealth (and probably the fact that she’s emotionally a little unstable, easier to be wooed). Honestly she strikes me as a standard white, wealthy asshole, except she happened to be a woman. I find her ethics, her commitments, and a lot of her behavior really shitty.

    What happened to intersectionality? The achievements of a white, incredibly wealthy, upperclass woman are not the achievements of us all. Her success, her ability to do what she did, was premised on the exact systems of oppression we’re so critical of today.

    I’m really not trying to be difficult. I want to see cool queer people of history represented on screen, but I kind of can’t stand seeing Anne’s response shooting down one of her tenants, when he remarks something about how the class dynamics will change one day, celebrated as a feminist victory. I would have expected more critique of this show from venues like this. Again, I’m not trying to not say that it’s fucking awesome to have queer, butch representation. It’s awesome that Anne was a lesbian through and through, that she got to write so much of her life down, that she was wealthy enough to write it down and have it preserved, that she was radically herself in a world that wanted her to be a standard “lady.” But I just wish the show was a little more self-conscious, a little more even-handed in her portrayal, or, in the absence of that, that we were more even-handed in our praise.

    • I’m with you on strong reservations about the show, to a point that I didn’t really enjoy watching it, but I don’t want to stop other people from having a positive experience with the things they like about it. The writer of the show is aware of the class issues and issues with like, doing shitty stuff men do as a woman does not make it less shitty, and discusses them in an interview with the NYT (class cough cough). I’m paying attention to other stuff that I like better instead.

    • I hear you! Personally I think the show is pretty even-handed. When her politics are less progressive than her sister’s, they show us. And did you see Monday’s episode? They certainly didn’t pull away from her unflinching embrace of mining and child labor.

      I still enjoy that she was brash, nearly out, that she stood up to men, that she fell in love often and easily and oh so intensely, and that she filled the pages of her prolific journals with her million conquests!

    • Yeah, I get those perspectives. Anywhere we find community, representation, affinity, etc., is important, and I don’t want to take that from people, certainly.
      I won’t come around to it being even-handed yet; you see when her politics differ from her more progressive sister, but her sister is made out as the obnoxious embarrassment of the show most of the time – but maybe she’ll be redeemed by the end and I’ll have to eat my words! I haven’t watched Monday’s episode yet, I’ll try to get to it today.

    • My personal two cents. I actually kind of like that they aren’t sawing off her rough edges and making her into some kind of respectable queer hero. Anne Lister was someone who was able to be as out and loud and confident in flouting conventions as she was because she didn’t give a shit what anyone else thought of her, and that’s amazing! But people who are loud and confident and don’t give a shit about what anyone thinks of them, well part of the reason they don’t give a shit what anyone thinks about them is because they genuinely don’t give a shit about other people at all. I think being able to see how cool and rad she was for living her life out loud and really enjoying that onscreen, should come with the reminder that she was a shitty person in other ways. That’s how people are, they can be amazing in one way, and then extremely flawed in other ways, and I don’t think we get to see lesbians be that way onscreen very much.

    • I actually think it’s very cool that this show is portraying the problematic stuff about Lister. I wrote about this when I made my first list about her before the series was released, about how she was a revolutionary in so many ways, but also really clung to a lot of really shitty patriarchal ideas and had terrible terrible terrrrrrible labor practices in her mines. I thought this series would shy away from that and just paint her as some kind of Disney hero. I love that it doesn’t because it would be boring and inaccurate and because — for me, personally, at least — I am over the idea that LGBTQ characters need to be beacons of pure goodness and light. It was the early 19th century and how she lived, what she accomplished, who she was — that is heroic to me; but I can also evaluate her decisions through this modern intersectional lens and find plenty of her actions and behaviors troublesome.

      • I think maybe my intention didn’t come across quite right. I agree that they should show the problematic stuff, I just wish it was even more problematized. I feel like it’s a bit too rosy (though as noted above, I haven’t yet seen this episode). I feel like she’s still being treated very much as the hero, even though she’s got these shitty features about her.

        And yeah, I think I’m struggling with that a bit. People are complicated, including LBGTQ people; it’s wrong to expect them to be perfect. But maybe I think we could have made a show about a character that isn’t a super classist, 1st wave white feminist kind of figure? Like, isn’t there a middle ground between ‘loud and messy and unlikeable’ and ‘capitalism personified’? And why is it that feature that it would be boring without?

        Maybe I’ve just hung out with too many marxists, but there’s a reason this show got funded, is being put on air, could receive support. There’s just something I’m really skeptical of about it. If she said some super gnarly racist shit, would we still be like, “Yeah, but she was so brave, and just so hot!”? I don’t think so. I think we’re more willing to let stuff go when it’s about class, etc.

        • And being willing to let those things go is particularly insidious to me on a show like this where it’s exactly her money that makes her able to live this brash, almost out life. Had she been even one tier down the social wealth ladder, she very likely wouldn’t have been able to live the life she did, no matter how daring and committed to herself she was.

          • Had she been even one tier down the social wealth ladder, she very likely wouldn’t have been able to live the life she did, no matter how daring and committed to herself she was.

            Right! Exactly! And she knew that! She wrote about it constantly in her diaries! I think that explains the lengths she went to to pursue and protect her wealth and status as a landowner! I think it’s amazing they’re showing that she can be shitty because it forces us to grapple with the luxury of not having to be shitty in those ways because of all the activism that came before us, and gives me, at least, hope that people will be even less shitty in the future because of our activism.

            But maybe I think we could have made a show about a character that isn’t a super classist, 1st wave white feminist kind of figure?

            And in fact we have and they’re all over the place now and we cover them extensively on this website. But it is highly unlikely we’re going to make a show about an open lesbian from 1832 that doesn’t portray her classism, because, as you said, she wouldn’t have been open. Certainly she would not have been capable of writing a four million-word collection of diaries, a sixth of which were written in a cryptograph she designed herself. The show takes issue with her classism, right? At least once an episode, someone points out she’s being a real jackass about her money and social standing.

            Even The L Word doesn’t hold up with its morality, and that show isn’t even two decades old. We grow, we learn, we change. I think it’s okay to acknowledge what is dubious while still celebrating what is good — especially when you’re talking about someone who lived two centuries ago.

          • I can’t reply to Heather’s comment, for some reason, so I’ll just reply to my own. I feel like there’s some real bad faith argumentation in there (and things that I’ve already responded to above), like obviously I think it’s okay to ‘acknowledge the dubious and celebrate what’s good,’ but suggesting that I don’t is a great way to position me as someone saying something ridiculous.

            I think the comment about it being why she pursued the maintenance of her wealth is really interesting, and not something I knew before (I haven’t read her diaries) and I’ll keep that in mind as I watch the show.

          • Yeah, definitely! You should check them out! Her longtime partner, Marianne, the love of her life, promised they’d spend their lives together, as married women, but then Marianne’s inheritance fell through and she chose to marry a man named Charles Lawton. It destroyed Anne. She burned the three years of her post-wedding correspondence with Marianne afterward because she was so distraught looking back on how hopeless she’d been. That’s when Anne kind of went berserk about being able to earn her own living, which the show never gets at. Here’s from 1826:

            I said I should wish to have all the estate here, ultimately. ‘What, all?’ said my uncle, smiling. ‘Yes, all.’ He has no high opinion of ladies. Were I other than I am, would not leave his estate to me. At last I confided in my uncle and aunt that Mariana would not have married if she or I had had good independent fortunes. My uncle, as usual, said little or nothing but seemed well enough satisfied. My aunt talked, appearing not at all surprised, saying she always thought [Mariana and Charles] a match of convenience. It shall be mine and I will maintain it as it deserves, making a life for myself and female companion. I shall live my life.

      • That quote from her diary that ends “I shall live my life” & the backstory about Marianne is game changing for me. Thank you so much for sharing it, Heather. I guess one reason I was having trouble with the show was that I didn’t get a compelling explanation about what was driving her, and the people I was watching with took it for granted that she could/should be driven by an entitlement to what landed men at the time felt entitled to, and that wasn’t working for me (altho if true, is ok, just not a story I’m gonna get excited about). The Marianne backstory and quote you share reframes her doggedness as rather about an entitlement to her _life_ including partnership, romance, stability, and she’s using the means she has the most access to – navigating the existing class system where she has a rocky foothold on a spot with some power, and eeking out a little more space in the extremely limited imagination space of what life and partnership could be. That in a context where marriage was mostly about livelihood for everyone, no matter class or straightness, is more special and something I am more interested in 🙂

        • It was such an odd choice to start this show at this point in her life. Ann Walker is her partner for the rest of her life. But the decades leading up to meeting Ann are FULL of women all over the world, and more than one — but especially Marianne — leaving her because they needed to have financial security. It seems essential in understanding her character to me, and I’m just now realizing I had all that info already baked into my brain when I met this Anne.

          • i’m also super curious as to the potential consequences for being out in that time period. the newest episode mentions “two men being hanged,” but it seems like sometimes, those type of life-and-death consequences were more on the line for men than for women. it seems like the difference between having money and having none was perhaps much more of consequence for the women than whether their relationships were an open secret?

          • I agree. Her earlier life studying medicine in Paris and sleeping her way around would have been fun 🙂 I think it’s so cool to see her marching her way around Halifax and making gay work in rural England though…I mean she convinced the Anglican Bishop of a very conservative English area to gay marry her TWICE in CHURCH. Baller

          • thanks all for this convo! maybe the story her galavanting about finding & fighting for spaces for herself, and the thread about women’s (terrifyingly limited) options for financial independence and what’s at stake there – may be too radical for mainstream television? This is all making me wanna read the diaries, and also suspect the the ‘I can do anything a man can do better’ and ‘isn’t it great this woman is killing it at business negotiations’ sheens on the story are more anachronisms coming across partly in the writing & execution of the show, and partly in my own lens from the mainstream feminism I’m steeped in now. And that a story about her ‘settling down’ is more palatable than a story about her having lots of partners.

    • I only really started liking Anne when it became clear she actually has feelings for Miss Walker. I thought it was a little gross she went after her for money, but then it became apparent she actually loves her. The show isn’t perfect, but it’s pulled me in slowly and now I’m rooting for Anne Lister. And she’s just so hot. Shane was a pretty boy asshole, but Anne is actually powerful and not afraid to get her hands dirty.

    • I look at it as more a part of her survival framework. If you’re going to break all the rules of society, including marrying a woman, it helps to be seen a fundamentally an upholder of the rules and system your peers understand. I think she got away with a LOT because she wasn’t seen as a revolutionary my her local Gentry. Maybe she went a little overboard embracing the Tory causes, but you have to think about what it took to get everyone to overlook that she was taking on in every respect the role of a proper English gentleMAN. She dressed like a man, she ran her estate like a man, she wooed women like a man…this was a persona she knowingly constructed.

    • I can’t reply to Heather here but:

      > Right! Exactly! And she knew that! She wrote about it constantly in her diaries!

      This is the television show though — I shouldn’t have to read her diaries to get more context into her politics.

      I really dislike how they make her sister seem annoying when she respects the servants and workers.

      I actually really like this show and all the characters except for Anne. I agree with you completely that this show does not do a good job of being more conscious of Anne’s super capitalistic ways.

  2. Miss Queer Girl! How radiant your writing is – it lights up this site as surely as you light up a room.
    Your passion for this subject is quite entrancing, would you care to discuss it further? Your attention to costuming details has quite captivated me. Pockets have long been a particular devotion of mine – did you know they used to be separate from garments so you could dip your hand into the same pocket regardless of attire?

    But I must make haste – so I shall kiss you farewell ere I return tomorrow…with gratitude aplenty for the enchantment with which you have graced us all.

  3. Vere: “I’m just not… like THAT.”
    Me: “ I know what you did last summer with Nan King, FLORENCE!”

    But seriously, I love straight actresses who are so willing to play gay that they do so more than once (see also Sally Hawkins, Piper Perabo, Rachel Fucking Weiss, and a bunch of others), but Jodhi May wins for this being her THIRD time around (yeah, yeah, you guys all remember Tipping the Velvet, but I bet you forgot/suppressed Sister, My Sister)!

  4. Just here to inform everyone of the fact women’s “underpants” of this time period are still crotch-less, and that crinoline not being on the scene for at 25 years later means the petticoat is pretty dang easy to maneuver around an’ back without much effort.

    Sure one could pull a Mother Ginger with crinoline, but hiking up someone’s skirts is just sexier in my opinion.

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