Self-proclaimed “Lister Sister” Rachael Biggs on validation, courage and lessons in love

BY RACHAEL BIGGS, IMAGES FROM GENTLEMAN JACK, BBC

It has been one month now since the last episode of Gentleman Jack was shown on the BBC. Since the finale on 7 July 2019, I have been through the most magnificent (and scary) journey. Even as I write this, my brain can’t keep up with the words I feel utterly compelled to write down. The initial stages that I felt were similar to that of grief (not a term to be used lightly I am sure you will agree) and I couldn’t for the life of me understand why. The days following the finale, I was struggling to concentrate at work. I was replaying certain scenes (the hilltop scene, the wedding scene in the church) over and over in my mind and I felt such utter sadness, it was knocking me sideways. I vividly remember looking at my wife with tears welling in my eyes, so desperate to understand why I felt so much pain deep in my heart, it literally made my heart ache. I couldn’t make sense of my emotions whatsoever. “What is happening to me?” I remember asking myself. I was trying to get my three-year-old to finish off her sandwich at lunchtime and tears were flowing down my cheeks – I didn’t want her to see me like this.

Over the course of the following two nights once the kids were in bed, I decided to binge-watch the series again to see if this would help to give me some clarity over the situation. It didn’t. So then I decided to do two very important things: one – I wrote down my innermost thoughts and feelings in true Anne Lister style and two – I joined a Gentleman Jack fan group on Facebook. It helped. Writing my thoughts and feelings down helped me to understand where the desperate sadness was coming from and joining the group reassured me that I certainly was not alone in this. I soon discovered that what I was feeling was indeed a profound sense of grief (that word again). Grief for all the feelings, all the emotions, the simple validation of who I am and what my heart, body and soul is capable of, that me as a little girl and me as teenager and me as a young woman missed out on. Never before on prime time TV (and BBC at that!) had I seen a lesbian love story with no showcasing, no gimmicks, no ulterior motive, just love, in all its rawness. For me and a lot of other people, this was and is groundbreaking. Finally, there is something very real for lesbians and bi women to relate to, not just the dramatised love story portrayed in Gentleman Jack, but also the real life Anne Lister and Ann Walker and the hurdles that they overcame to be together. It is a running joke that all lesbians in films and TV are killed off. Not this time. (Well, not quite yet anyway!)

I was feeling validated, right to the core of my very being and it was overwhelming me. I became quickly obsessed as I tried to work it out. I got the accompanying BBC book written by Anne Choma, I booked a trip to Halifax to see all the Lister sights, I watched clips of the series on social media (P.S. Don’t tell my wife, but I also checked out both Suranne Jones’ and Sophie Rundle’s instagram accounts – yes, I created my own account for the sole purpose of doing this.) Heck, I even posted on the Facebook fan group – something I have never done before. I wasn’t myself. But at the same time I was. I was allowing myself to be exactly who I am, with nothing holding me back. My first ever public post – this programme just seemed to transform me, my confidence to express my innermost thoughts and my ability to just simply be me. If that isn’t empowering, I don’t know what is. (By the way my post received 231 likes and 60 comments… not bad considering I had never done it before! All comments were positive – how refreshing!)

This is where I have ended up. I am a woman married to another woman, living in a rural part of England. I am a teacher, my wife is a doctor. Together we have three small children (three-year-old twins and a one-year-old, all girls). This is me. Prior to Gentleman Jack, I was just doing my best – surrounding myself with very accepting family and friends, trying to remain positive and optimistic, but… at the back of mind, I was worried for my children. I would watch or read the news and feel scared – protests outside school gates, countries declaring homosexuality a sin, homophobic hate crimes. I would worry that my children might be bullied for having two mums, I would worry that they themselves would wish that they had a dad. Since Gentleman Jack, I have allowed myself to listen only to what I know is the truth – that all my children need is love. Plain and simple. Of course, I already knew this before but not with the same air of confidence behind me.

I struggled myself with my own self-acceptance as a young teenager growing up in a rural area. But I made a choice to live my life as me and off to uni in London I went and I didn’t look back. During my twenties, I loved and lost, I suffered intense heartbreak, I made terrible mistakes, I treated former lovers badly and in turn got treated badly. I am human too. I had no TV programmes or films or even music (although music did come the closest to helping) to relate it all to and it hurts me to know that. I feel sad for my younger self. Gentleman Jack has allowed me to accept all of this. It has reassured me of who I am and the best thing that will come out of this is that it will project directly onto my children’s lives. Yes, of course I will still worry about the impact of things on my children, but at least I now have a tether point at which to go back to. “Women fell in love almost 200 years ago, you know?” I can hear my future self say…. “Have some courage, Rachael”. It has allowed me to revisit my painful past. I can now look back on all my life experiences without the need to promptly shut the door on each one, as they gently surface from my memory box. It has opened up scars that I didn’t even know were still there, but simultaneously healed them. No wonder I have been feeling overcome by emotion over the last few weeks!

I will endeavour to teach my children better than I had. They will learn that love is love, no matter the set up. Most importantly I will teach them self-acceptance. Accept who you are and work with it – take the good with the bad. Don’t try to be something you’re not. Surround yourself with decent and loving people and you won’t stray too far from the right path. Be kind; we are all human. These are lessons that I think the world as a whole could really do with in this very moment.

So the journey Gentleman Jack has taken me on has quite literally been life-changing. It has changed my outlook completely, it has offered me a chance for true self-acceptance and ultimately it has made me feel very happy to be alive. I know it has been life-changing for a great many other people too, whether gay, bi or straight, who doesn’t like a good old fashioned (literally) love story?

On the Facebook group, I have read stories of people coming out to their friends and family having watched the programme. Another that sticks in my mind was about a parent, who having watched episode six, which shows Ann Walker really struggling with her self-acceptance to the point of a mental breakdown, rung up their lesbian daughter to say, “I love you. I accept you”. Talk about life-changing. It really is. People in this group are obsessively watching episodes over and over again – why? The answer is because every time they watch it, it validates them further. It is making them feel alive, accepted, it is real, it’s a “comfort blanket”, as one person put it. It is something lesbians have waited for their whole life and it really hit home, because it is not all make-believe. It’s based on a real life story, a story dating back almost 200 years. For a lot of people, it is the tether point I referred to earlier. It is also mind-blowing that this show has created so many knock-ons, for example, a local Halifax jewellers who has designed replica Onyx rings as worn by Suranne Jones (playing Anne Lister) in the show has been inundated and unable to keep up with orders. Hotels have been sold out, Shibden Hall has had to extend its opening times… this is to name but a few. There is a whole world out there that has been set on fire by this.

As a mother of three girls under three, I haven’t had a child-free day out since they were born. It had to be something special to get me to stay away from home and special it certainly was. Travelling from the South West of England, Google maps told me it would take four hours 30 mins to travel to Halifax. “Do it,” said the voice in my head. “Do it,” said my wonderful wife sitting next to me. So I did it. I woke up at 4.30am one Saturday morning and was in Halifax by 9am. The next 48 hours provided me with memories that will last a lifetime. The second I arrived in Halifax, I felt completely at home. I honestly felt something special touch my soul. It wasn’t just that every single person I met was incredibly helpful, from the guides in Halifax Minster to the staff at Shibden Hall; no, it ran deeper than that. Visiting Ann Walker’s burial site was one of the most profound moments of my life. I paid my respects and thanked her for all she has done for us. As I stood alone in the churchyard surrounded by gravestones with the sunlight shining through the trees that were gently swaying in the wind, it suddenly dawned on me the depths of what I was feeling. It felt as though she was a relative of mine, almost as if I was discovering part of my long lost family tree. Anne Walker to me at that moment was as a grandmother, or rather a great, great, great one. I felt the same too for Anne Lister, as I stood in Halifax Minster and thanked her for her courageous and brave character that led me to stand where I stood that sunny Saturday in Halifax. These two women are a part of all lesbians and I think it explains why discovering their very existence has blown the minds of women across the globe. To be perfectly honest, so strong and interesting are their characters, they have managed to captivate audiences regardless of sexual orientation and indeed gender. As we refer to each other in the fan group, we are either “Lister Sisters” or “Lister Misters” and we are welcome and open to either and anyone in between.

The reason, I believe, for the groundbreaking nature of this TV programme is two fold. The first is quite simple: the BBC, a cornerstone of British television, made the important decision to show us a love story of two somewhat troubled but resilient women on primetime Sunday evening TV. Just wow. The second is more complex and has more layers to it, of which I am yet to unravel, as my very existence just can’t quite handle it all in one go. It is the weight of carrying around the knowledge that a historic figure, who almost 200 years ago, stayed true to herself and married another woman. Even more wow. Every person on this planet likes to know where they come from, their roots, who has paved the way for them and what experiences they had – good and bad. Now lesbians have had a piece of the jigsaw puzzle that has always been missing, be found. It is instilling a quiet confidence that quite simply just wasn’t there before (no matter how many reruns of the L Word we watched!) It has rocked the lesbian world. The goal posts have been moved and there is no going back now and I am in awe of it. If Anne Lister was here to see it now, she would certainly have a smile on her face.

I finish by showing upmost gratitude to Sally Wainwright for such beautiful mastery of screenwriting and to Helena Whitbread, Jill Liddington and Anne Choma for being so talented and dedicated in order that any of this could happen in the first place. I feel indebted to Suranne Jones and Sophie Rundle, who portrayed the love so authentically that at times I actually believed it was real. (I secretly still do!) I also say to the person or people who green-lit it for prime time BBC viewing, well done. The same to HBO for our friends across the pond. You have no idea, absolutely no idea, the impact you have had, not only on this generation, but also the next. I am so proud to tell my three little girls, who have two mums who love them more than life itself, about my all-time favourite love story, which just so happens to involve two women who dared to be different and stayed true to themselves.

Opinions expressed by contributors do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors of DIVA magazine or its publishers.

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29 thoughts on “The longread: How Gentleman Jack changed my life forever”

  1. WOW!… You have written exactly how I feel. You have put in words, what I have been feeling since GJ came into our lives. I wish I wrote this. Nice one.

    1. que fuerte! gracias por expresar, lo que provoca esta historia, en tantas personas! El porque necesitamos verlo,, una y otra vez…

  2. Beautifully written article by Rachael Biggs on the effects of watching Gentleman Jack, so much of what Rachael has written echoes wholeheartedly with my sentiments. Thank you Rachael for such an honest, thoughtful piece.
    Sue.

  3. Your first few paragraphs where you describe how you were left feeling after the last episode of GJ was and is exactly how I felt. I also had to rewatch a lot of the series. The scenes where the Ann’s first met and the last episode on the hill and in the church were magnificent. I was left feeling empty full of anguish not knowing why. Only over time have these feelings receded. Trying to come to terms as to why I felt this way, I think you explain very well it was a genuine love story, HBO and the BBC have produced an outstanding series. Suranne and Sophie deserve recognition for there performances.

  4. Thank you Rachael, for a superb piece of writing. It has helped me to articulate and now understand, so many of the emotions I have been feeling since the series, (especially ‘the grief’). I was cheering and shouting whilst reading it and agreeing with everything you said. I too, am so grateful to all those involved in any way with the programme, (especially Sally Wainwright, Suranne Jones and Sophie Rundle), as the show validates everything I am. Thank you again.

  5. Thanks for putting into words the emotions I felt, too, about GJ. Well written and well done. Thank you.

  6. I’m welling up reading this on the subway. This piece articulates exactly what I was feeling – in my fifty years I’ve never come across such an uplifting piece of work that speaks to my truth as a gay woman.

  7. Yup…can’t stop watching it. Been waiting for 60 years for this. Thank you Sally, Suranne and Sophie. You have no idea.

  8. I thought I was all cried out after watching GJ more times than I can count, but this article, this heartfelt explanation of the overwhelming effect of GJ on the lives of thousands and thousands of lesbians – of all ages and races – left me with tears welling and a lump in my throat. This says it all. Validation for who we are and who we love. ♥️

  9. Beautifully thought out and so well written. Very profound and I am in total agreement with you. Gentleman Jack- as far as I am aware there has never been such a positive and accurate portrayal of lesbian life and love. Lesbian readers of The Well of loneliness must have had a similar reaction when the book was first published. Although it was such a melodramatic book, focusing on the lesbian as ‘inverted’ and the book itself took to court as ‘obscene’ it was at least a portrayal of lesbianism and a voice of the ‘other.’ How things have moved on with Gentleman Jack. No wonder we have been left reeling from its impact. You have put my own feelings into words. Thank you. I cannot express enough appreciation to Sally Wainwright and her team. Pure excellence.

  10. Well written heartfelt piece. Anne Lister is a multifaceted and interesting individual in terms of her achievements and acumen. I dont do lists of most influential people but AL would be right up there with the best of them.

    A fantastic,beautiful and inspiring portrayal by both Surrane and Sophie. I was brought up on the edge of Shibden Valley wonderful place.

  11. I wept as I read this article as well as as I’m leaving this comment. I too went through an odd compulsion in watching it OVER AND OVER AGAIN, Constantly crying during multiple scenes, relating to So Many aspects of the series. Loving the fact that there was no gratuitous sex scenes and staying Focused on the INTENSE emotional connection/Love between the two. I still don’t understand, as this article describes, why I am SO EMOTIONAL but it has given some potential insight and I plan joining the other groups to see if may further. Thank you for writing this article and sharing your story as well as creating the series ‼💯💋💯‼

  12. Thank you. I identify with everything you write. A very moving piece. I thought I was the only woman who felt like this. I’ve just joined the FB group.

  13. Thank you for your vulnerability in sharing your feelings – it is amazing how well you articulated what so many are feeling. You are not alone and thanks to your post, I am not either in my thoughts for AL & AW. My favorite line of your post is,“discovering their very existence has blown the minds of women across the globe”.

  14. Well said, Rachael! That unexpected torrent of grief—so surprising and such a challenge.
    Like Anne, I “rise above it” every day and have for more than 50 years. I’ve faced the task with creativity and defiance. But such fatigue sets in.
    For me, the wonder of Gentleman Jack begins with this: nobody on the whole creative team is ashamed of Anne. No one’s trying to explain her away. It’s almost too much. I keep revisiting scenes and waiting for Sally W/Suranne J/Sophie R to signal: “Don’t associate the real me with THIS.” The signals just aren’t there.

    I dare to trust that their embrace is wholehearted. They’ve shared more than talent; they’ve given empathy, decency, and kindness.

    Rachael, thanks for going to Halifax and paying our respects. Perhaps one day I’ll get there myself. Hey-ho!

  15. I am a straight female & I adore the series Gentleman Jack. It is so honest in its delivery. The portrayal of the 2 lovers is heartwrenching, beautiful & captivating. The saying “love is never wrong” has never been more appropriate. Of course they were not the only lesbians around in humankinds history but they were so brave to do what made them happy during a time of intolerance (even though it wasn’t a crime to be gay unless you were male! ) So well done BBC for the great series you have created, highlighting love between 2 women in such a comprehensive, caring, loving & emotional way. Needless to say how excellent & brilliant the 2 main characters portrayals are.. Bravo! I literally cannot wait until the next series is aired!

  16. I stumbled on this. I think I found it on Suranne Jones’s instagram.
    I’ve never even been on instagram before much less posted but after you read this you will understand.
    Racheal,
    I Cried and had to stop reading what you wrote more than once because The same exact thing happened to me after I finished watching this extraordinary series obviously made by extraordinary women (and men of course). I just became so terribly well…sad to my very soul. Your word grieving is what I came to realize was happening to me. But in my case I grieve for a lifetime of hiding my very essence. GJ is slowly giving me strength. Imagine a TV show actually changing lives.
    Thank God for Sally Wainwright. She was driven for so many years…seriously God bless her. She got it DONE.
    The series can’t possibly encompass Anne Lister’s entire character as far as showing the other 40 plus years of her life but what The TV series did was kill me with acting so achingly exquisite on the part of Suranne Jones who I’d never seen before as I live in the America (land of less than mediocre TV and actors) and the way Sophie Rundle reacted to Suranne J’s Anne and portrayed her character Ann. I’ve never seen anything like it.
    I think of the real Anne Lister and Anne Walker and my soul aches for them too.
    That Ann Walker carried her wife’s body for over a year to bring her back home to rest in Halifax…
    I don’t know what the virtually millions of viewers will so if Sally W. gets to that part of their lives.
    It will truly be too sad considering caliber of the two actresses involved and the kind of writing that has already come form SW.
    Thank you Racheal for what you have written. Thank Helena Whitbread, Jill Liddington and Anne Choma for their dedication.
    I wish all the happiness in the world to you, your wife and sweet girls. Their world hopefully will be so much more accepting of so many beautiful women who simply want to live their lives true to themselves.

    1. I wish every one who suffers from hiding their core being could read this.
      Some kind of perfect occurrence has happened… that as it’s end result allowed Sally Wainwright to bring her dream to television just as she saw and felt it. She is one amazingly talented and strong lady.
      That she came right to the perfect and I mean perfect actress to play the part of Anne Lister…
      anyone who has watched this series knows Suranne Jones was born to play this part.
      She breathes such life into the character (at least as this series wants us to see her) that it literally has transformed untold thousands if not hundreds of thousands of lives. These aren’t empty words. These people are all over the internet thanking the powers that be for Gentleman Jack.
      It was so meant to be.
      As for this article, it is just extraordinary in it’s honesty and truth.

  17. Thank you for your wonderful articulation. Hard to put into words the effect GJ has had, but damn fine writing. 🎩✨

  18. I to felt at home on our vist to Halifax. Shibden as become a go to when life feels alittle mixed up! I have to say this has been along time before GJ was aired. I believe that there is a someone for everyone and who, what sex, religon it doesnt matter as LOVE is whats important. This article will touch a few hearts because of your honesty. Much love to you hun x

  19. Rachael – you are soooo right on! Your article speaks to my heart and soul. I had some of the same bereavement feelings, and they became ever more intensified when I learnt that in real life, Ann and Anne only had eight years together because Miss Lister died of fever while they were abroad. Then Miss Walker returned home, completely bereft, and her relatives ended up having her locked up. It hit me *so* hard to think of that. Here these two groundbreaking women have been dead all these years, and I am still grieving about them.

    Anyway, your article was topnotch, and I thank you for putting into words a lot of what I’ve been feeling. Thanks to DIVA for featuring it too! All Best,
    Lori
    Lori@LoriLLake.com

  20. I have just read your story it is fanstastic,i was like you crying all the time watching GMJ all the time,ive been gay since school days i im 69 now.So in my younger days i had to keep quiet.woman ive been with over the years were just wam bam but watching GMJ being gentle and romantic is so beautiful i know thats not life.But in my head it is.I feel i know Anne lister and she around us all the time.She has giving us all to be proud to be gay !!,

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