Presenting OTP Tuesday! Each Tuesday I will introduce you to a new One True Pairing! Tune in each week to find out which fictional couple you need to agonize/squee over next. For June, I want to share some love for queer content out there. Our final Pride Month OTP is The Ann(e)s!
Who Are The Ann(e)s?
The Ann(e)s are the central ship of the HBO show Gentleman Jack. The Ann(e)s referred to are Anne Lister and Ann Walker.
Anne Lister is the protagonist of Gentleman Jack, the titular “jack.” The show is based around the diaries of the actual historical figure Anne Lister. In the course of her life, Anne wrote four million words in her diaries, all coded, to document every moment of her unique life. Because Anne is not your typical early-1800s lady; in fact, she is anything but. Anne is a landowner in her own right, fiercely devoted to her own independence, and, prominently, a lesbian.
We first met Anne in Gentleman Jack, returning to her home in Shibden Hall in Halifax after a failed romance. All of the women Anne takes up with eventually leave her for the safety of heterosexual marriage. So Anne throws herself into the running of Shibden, which she owns outright, as a distraction. She runs up against a lot of opposition from men who aren’t happy with a woman in charge. One major problem is the Rawsons stealing coal from her land. She can stop them, but she needs significant money first.
A solution pops up when a neighbor, Ann Walker, seems to be enthralled with Anne. Ann is very rich and very sheltered – easy pickings for fortune hunters. Anne decides that she would be no worse than any other match, and sets out to seduce Ann. Of course, it goes awry, as these things do. Ann is unable to commit to a queer romance, and her mental health spirals. For her part, Anne finds herself unexpectedly falling in love – definitely not part of the plan to use Ann’s money for Shibden. Finally, Anne breaks away and runs off to the continent to travel, her great passion. She returns to Shibden for her aunt, and runs into Ann, who is finally ready to commit.
Unlike Anne Lister, Ann Walker is much of what you’d expect from the leading lady in an early-1800s period piece. Ann is gentle and delicate, with a personal fortune that makes her a target for fortune hunters. Despite that, she has made it to the spinster-y age of 29 unmarried. Instead, she is surrounded by a tribe of family members who all try to run Ann’s life without any input from her. The consensus is that Ann is delicate, with nervous conditions that limit her functionality. They call her “the invalid.”
This is, to some extent, true. Ann has had a difficult life, losing both of her parents early on, right at the age where she would have entered society. Her sister soon left to go to Scotland with her husband, leaving Ann all alone in their house in Halifax. Ann’s health is delicate, though a doctor asserts that her physical ailments might be psychosomatic. He emphasizes that this makes them no less real, only less visible. Ann’s mental health is far more fragile. She seems to suffer from serious mental illness, manifesting in anxiety and seriously low self-esteem, though it will later escalate severely.
The cure is, apparently, Anne Lister. Anne comes in, confident and secure, and shows Ann a better way. She encourages Ann to be strong and stand up for herself. The mutual attraction between the Ann(e)s also bolsters Ann’s self-esteem. However, when family members pick up on the fact that there is something romantic between the Ann(e)s, they attack Ann and tell her it is unnatural and a sin. This sends Ann spiraling, to the extent where she harms herself. Luckily, her sister is there to care for her and encourage her to pursue Anne, the best thing that had happened to her.
Why Are The Ann(e)s OTP?
I first learned about Gentleman Jack during the final days of Game of Thrones. As people were getting amped up about how badly Game of Thrones ended, I was seeing a lot of “watch Gentleman Jack if you want a better HBO show that more sensitively tackles things and gives good representation). After doing some research to find out what the show was about, I was hooked – a period piece that is also super queer? Sign me up.
Watching Gentleman Jack, it’s clear that the main focus is supposed to be Anne Lister. The show is based on her diaries, after all. But despite Anne’s best intentions, her plan to seduce Ann Walker falls apart, making the romance of the Ann(e)s the real draw. Watching their relationship develop and become something worth rooting for is what kept me going, even as Gentleman Jack put me off at some point.
To be honest, I was a bit hit-or-miss about the Ann(e)s at first. I was thrilled at the prospect of Gentleman Jack, a period piece that is openly and unabashedly queer. The reality was a bit less enjoyable than I’d thought, at least at first. Anne is supposed to be a hero, but to me she is seemingly a villainous type, at the start. She sets out to take advantage of Ann’s naiveté, looking to take her money just like any other unscrupulous, money-grubbing villain from any period piece.
With this context, I was less than thrilled with how Gentleman Jack frames the Ann(e)s at first. Ann Walker is a sweet, kind, good person, who deserves to be loved and cherished and, most importantly, taken care of. For Anne to come in fully intending to take advantage of that goodness is appalling, especially given that Anne has other faults (she is a landlord dedicated to her status, very classist). I was all set to be angry on Ann’s behalf at this manipulative woman, who was no better than any man looking to seduce a naïve young lady.
Then the unexpected happened: Anne fell in love, and Ann broke it off. Seeing Anne hurt revealed that she had been rejected so many times for who she is and how she refuses to change herself to fit into heteronormative society. When they get back together at the end, it is Ann who takes action. They have both grown and now they are entering a relationship together as equals, neither taking advantage of the other. Gentleman Jack is no slowburn; they get together fairly quickly and are more will-they-won’t-they. But my love for the Ann(e)s was the real slowburn – hard-won and slow in coming, but ultimately so rewarding.
Queer Period Piece
Now, anyone who knows me knows I love period pieces. There’s something uniquely captivating about the sweeping romance, historical detailing, and costumes. My favorite movie is a period piece, many of my favorite ships come from period pieces, I could watch these stories over and over again (and I have, and I will continue to do so). But let’s be clear – period pieces really struggle with telling diverse stories. These stories are overwhelmingly white, middle to upper class, and almost exclusively straight. People can argue about historical accuracy til the cows come home, but the point is: do better, period pieces.
And while Gentleman Jack is still a miss in many regards (the protagonists are rich white people, there are almost no people of color), it is an important step forward in one regard: it’s super queer. And not only is it a queer love story set in the 1830s, it’s a based on historical fact. People who would cry about SJW pandering, or adding diversity for brownie points have nothing on the fact that Gentleman Jack is based on the real love of two real women in history. That’s something special.
There’s a lot of context to this queer romance, too. Obviously, we can’t remove the historical oppression of queer people from this show if it’s meant to be a reflection of reality. There’s overt homophobia in Gentleman Jack; Anne is seen as “unnatural,” both for her gender nonconformity and her actions regarding women in private. Ann suffered a mental breakdown after being told she would go to hell for loving who she loves. These issues are addressed and handled delicately, as real issues that real queer people face, even today. The show is a godsend for queer fans who want to see themselves reflected on screen.
What’s Next For The Ann(e)s?
The good news is that Gentleman Jack has been renewed for a second season on HBO. Fans of the series will get another eight episodes to see how the Anne(s) develop their relationship even further. Things might seem wrapped up at the end of season one, but there is always more to tell. The trouble with stories based on real historical people is that there’s a lot of information about their lives readily available, which sets you up for some spoilers.
Personally I have tried to avoid learning much about the real Anne Lister to avoid these spoilers, but word of advice: don’t Google if you don’t want to know when she dies. Even aside from the historical record, though, we can speculate on what season two will have to offer. Season one ends with the Ann(e)s creating their own sort of marriage. Obviously, they are prevented from truly getting married by the circumstances of their time, but they pledge vows to each other in private, exchange rings, and take the sacrament together in church. In their minds, this is a binding agreement of marriage.
But, as anyone who’s been married can tell you, a wedding doesn’t immediately translate to a happily ever after. There are still a lot of things that need to be settled for the Ann(e)s. Anne has gambled the deeds to Shibden on a coal pit, which is currently failing. Ann’s money will surely go into fixing the problem, but it won’t be smooth sailing. Ann’s family is sure to have something to say about her moving into Shibden and out of their clutches. And though she seems to be doing better at the moment, Ann’s mental health is a serious, ongoing issue that will need to be addressed further.
Are The Ann(e)s Canon?
This is an amazing situation where not only is my ship canon, it’s historically accurate! The Ann(e)s do get together in Gentleman Jack, though it’s not smooth sailing once they do. In fact, they got together fairly early, with Anne pointing out right from the start of their relationship that Ann seemed a little bit in love with her. From there, it’s straightforward seduction: assuring Ann that her feelings are okay, that there is a mutual attraction, coaxing a kiss, introducing physical contact. Although Ann is initially hesitant, afraid of what she feels, she soon tumbles headfirst into an affair with Anne.
But things are will-they-won’t-they from that point. Anne is eager to solidify and confirm their relationship. She suggests taking vows and forming their own, unique marriage. Ann, for her part, is hesitant and unwilling (or unable) to commit. With all the things going on in Ann’s life (and in Ann’s head), she cannot in good faith pledge herself to Anne. She cannot leave Anne, though, and begs her to stay. There’s a lot of Anne proposing, Ann accepting, then Ann changing her mind. When Ann has a breakdown, it seems things are off for good. In fact, that’s what Anne tells her family.
Luckily, this time romance wins out over caution and restriction. Ann breaks from her family and the limitations they put on her to pursue Anne, knowing that this relationship is the best thing for her and her health. Anne realizes that although she set out to seduce, she truly fell for Ann, and needs her back in her life. In the end, they come together as equals and set out to start their life together. Real life gave us a good story for once, and I can’t wait to see more of it!