Bonus: Behind the scenes of the BBC series 'Gentleman Jack' with Anne Choma
Hosts: Anna Reser, Leila McNeill, and Rebecca Ortenberg
Guest: Anne Choma
Producer: Leila McNeill
Music: Careful! by Zombie Dandies
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The hosts go behind the scenes of the BBC series ‘Gentleman Jack,’ based on the diaries of Anne Lister, with the show’s consultant Anne Choma. Choma tells us about adapting the diaries for television drama, Anne Lister’s science reading list, and more!
Gentleman Jack: The Real Anne Lister by Anne Choma
Gentleman Jack | BBC One
Transcription by Rev.com
Leila: Welcome to this bonus episode of The Lady Science Podcast. We have a very exciting interview today with Anne Choma, a consultant for the HBO series, Gentleman Jack, about the life and relationships of Anne Lister. Anne Choma is a writer, historical researcher, and Anne Lister expert who has transcribed and decoded part of Anne Lister's diaries in the book from Penguin Books titled Gentleman Jack, The Real Anne Lister.
Leila: And since all three of us are big, big fans of the show, we are very delighted to have you, Anne. So welcome to the show.
A. Choma: Thank you.
Leila: So let's just dive right in. Why don't you tell us first how you became involved with the Gentleman Jack TV series?
A. Choma: Well, I've been a friend of Sally Wainwright's for many years and I've known her since 2002. And we had an opportunity to be part of a project in 2002 to try and transcribe Anne Lister's diaries. And so that was our initial meeting, and we became friends then, and have stayed friends ever since and have had a lasting long love affair with Anne Lister, all things Gentleman Jack.
A. Choma: And so when she was green lit to write the drama series, the BBC, HBO drama series, Gentleman Jack, she invited me on board to transcribe the diaries. And so that's how I became involved in working with her as her consultant.
Anna: That's so exciting. Like as a historian, I just think it would be so much fun to be asked to do something like that.
A. Choma: I mean, it was a great privilege because even though I'm friends with Sally, to be asked to be part of a major TV series and to do something you really love, it was very, very special. So I'm very thankful to Sally for that.
Anna: So I wanted to ask about kind of what it is like doing that work, and sort of as a consultant for the shows, what aspects you're involved in. I mean, for example, do you work specifically on the writing of the show and the use of the adaptation of the diaries for the script, or do you get involved with other aspects of it, like what the costumes should look like and the sets and things like that?
A. Choma: Yeah, I mean I've been in such a unique position to be involved in all aspects of the drama, from story lining of the scripts, working with the cast by supplying them with as much information from the diaries about their specific role as possible. So I worked very closely also with Tom Pye, the costume designer, and with the Anna Pritchard, the set designer.
A. Choma: So I could be working one day transcribing diaries and doing something very specific for Sally, and researching a specific aspect of the diaries. On another day I could be working with Tom Pye on trying to find the correct tartan for the Cameron clan in Scotland. So it was a really very ... You know, my time as consultant on series one was very, very special and very, very varied.
A. Choma: But of course, the biggest aspect of what I did for Sally as consultant was to transcribe the diaries. It's a huge part of what I do and what I'm doing now for series two. For series one, we transcribed an excessive of 300,000 words.
A. Choma: And for series two, I believe from yesterday's email that I received from the production office that I've transcribed in excess of 400,000 words for this new script. So my job as consultant with Sally seems to evolve as time goes on.
A. Choma: And of course working with, Suranne Jones and Sophie Rundle, was very special in series one. Watching them recreate an Anne Lister and Ann Walker was extraordinary. When I was writing the book, the BBC companion book, it was just great to see the characters come to life in front of me and it was very, very special.
A. Choma: Sally and I, we were today...sort of had a conversation with her this morning. So we work together very closely on a day to day basis throughout the production. So we talk to each other every day and we share ideas all the time. We have a really lovely working relationship, and I think we respect each other very much in terms of how we view and feel about Anne Lister.
A. Choma: The production team I work with at Lookout Point are also just super, super brilliant and fantastic and very, very talented group of people. I mean I'm just one of a very ... And we're actually quite a small team, which might surprise people. But I just, everyday I think how privileged I am to be able to work as consultant on the job.
Leila: When you're adapting primary source material like the diaries for television, what kinds of compromises do you have to strike between fact and fiction? Since they are different mediums, and audiences engage with the written material and film in different ways.
A. Choma: Yeah, I mean obviously working with a primary script does present its challenges. And we wanted the script ... Sally wanted the script to stay as close to the journals as much as we could. So in essence, we wanted to produce a version of Anne's life that we hoped she would recognize, but also one that would appeal to a modern audience. So we wanted to show Anne with all of her flaws and her brilliance.
A. Choma: But this of course... This presented itself ... Presented problems in itself because, and for Sally, she had to distill 18 months of diary down to eight hours of television, which was a massive challenge. What was important of course, is that we produce good TV drama. But at the same time we didn't want to over simplify and dilute the complexities of Anne's life by taking too much poetic license.
A. Choma: So Sally, as a dramatist, had to find a way in working with some of the more complex traits of Anne's character, and trying to balance that with the need to keep the narrative dramatic and exciting. So lots of challenges in working with a primary script, and the ways in which Sally had to be inventive in her script to reflect the truthfulness of Anne's life. I mean, a very, very good example of this would be how we would take aspects of Anne's life from the diary, from the transcriptions, and turn them into drama. It didn't always necessarily follow the exact way Anne were to tell her in her diary, but we would have grains of truth in the way that we depicted it on screen.
A. Choma: Good example is when Vere Hobart rejects Anne Lister in Hastings, which we see in episode one. And Anne's distraught and absolutely inconsolable in the diaries. Really, she buries herself in a room and in seclusion. And she's wretched and she cries and her eyes are swollen, her face is swollen. But the way we depicted that on screen was to have Anne Lister crying her eyes out on Vere Hobart's knee. An actual fact, that wasn't scripted. It was improvised. But it was ... You know, it's just kind of things like that how we would take aspects of the diary and we would work with them to produce watchable TV.
Rebecca: That's very cool. So we were wondering what kinds of details about sort of Anne Lister's world, and the time and places in which she lived, come from the diaries? And how were those integrated into the show?
A. Choma: I think one of the things we did very successfully in the drama was that we showed very clearly how difficult it was for women to be different and transgressive. And we know that Anne Lister was an extraordinary human being, but not everybody was as intellectually capable or as brave as she was. So I think what makes Anne Lister so special is that she has an enlightened understanding of her emotional and physical identity.
A. Choma: But in the drama we see what happens when women don't have this kind of inner strengths. And I think we see it very clearly in Lydia Leonard's depiction of Anne's early lover, Mariana Lawton, who bowed to society's demands by entering into a marriage with a man she didn't love. So Mariana essentially became the chattel of her husband, like many married women at the time. So thinking in that sense, the dramas are great success because we do show an alternative side to the life of women.
A. Choma: But more generally, I think in answer to your question, I think the drama has a very authentic Yorkshire feel to it. I think the language in the script is rooted in its Northern landscape. So for example, in episode one we also kickoff in 1832 at the time of the Great Reform Act. So we see things ... We see how things are starting to shift and move politically and culturally and socially for those lives, for those people whose lives are controlled and managed by landowners like Anne Lister. So I think we do integrate those aspects of Anne's world into the show very, very well.
Rebecca: Yeah. I'd say in undergrad I did a lot of research on the 1830s and 40s. And in the UK, and especially in Yorkshire and the effects of industrialization. And I really loved seeing all this stuff that I spent a lot of time on kind of coming to life. And the way that like, yeah, that there's this like political and economic drama that sort of this part of it that can be hard to make exciting. But that like I find really fascinating.
Rebecca: Also, I love the costumes. I have ... I kind of adore clothing of that time period because it's so ridiculous. And I very much appreciated that you had all of those terrible puffed sleeves and sausage curls and-
A. Choma: Yeah. I mean that's how you ... I mean of course the way we look is the way we also build character. And I think we've got a shout out to Tom Pye, the costume designer, again because what he did with the costumes was phenomenal. I remember the first day I met him and he came with this huge book of drawings of his vision of Anne Lister, and she instantly leapt off the page.
A. Choma: We had great fun with the costumes, but we wanted to be as authentic as we could in terms of what we learned from the diaries. But of course we know that Anne didn't wear a top hat, and we did take poetic license with that. But, you know, these are decisions you make at the time.
Leila: I have a question related to this idea of world-building from the diaries. Are there points in the diaries when Anne directly engages with things like the Reform Act, or with, for instance like women voting and women's rights? Because I remember, I think it was in episode one, where her and Mary ... Was it Mary, the sister?
A. Choma: Marian.
Leila: Marian. Yeah. And they kind of have a back and forth a little bit about women's rights. So are those things that she engaged with directly in the diaries as well, or was that something that was integrated into the show for world-building?
A. Choma: She ... No, she did. She did write about politics in the diaries, but she always said she was no great politician. But then she would say that, and then on another page she'd say, "I'm a natural Tory." But she had no great love affair with the Reform in terms of giving greater freedoms to working men.
A. Choma: And in fact, when at the height of the radical movement in Yorkshire in 1832, she'd be very dismissive of the changes that were happening. But she did take on board the environment around her, and she was very aware of the way that men were resisting the traditions, and particularly some of the tendency to see that with Samuel Sowden, who comes up to her in the pub and says to her there'll come a day when the workmen turn against the landlords.
A. Choma: And actually in the diaries, this has fantastic resonance with her, and it really affects her. And she talks about it for many days afterwards. This conversation she's had with Samuel Sowden about what he said. And she's discussing this with professional men. So it, you know, politics in a way it did become part of a daily conversation, but she would still say that she'd had no great interest in it. In terms of women, and she believed that women who had properties should have some form of influence in the way that ... Some sort of influence in the voting system, particularly people like her who had landed property. But that they were to exercise these powers very cautiously.
A. Choma: When she was having a conversation with Lady Harriet De Hagemann, who was Vere Hobart's half sister who really wasn't expressing any kind of great opinion on what she was trying to talk to her about in terms of women and voting. She described her as being milky and watery.
A. Choma: So she's a complex character, Anne Lister, in terms of politics. When she heard about any kind of radical uprising in Halifax, she'd describe it as impudent absurdity. She was really not one for reform.
Rebecca: This is a jumping ahead a little bit in the questions, but I feel like it just leads in perfectly. I do think one of the things that is very interesting and unusual about the show is that Anne is presented as both this very radical person, but also this like very like 19th century landowner. And I feel like when we see historical depictions in fiction it's tough to tell these kind of complex stories about radical people of the past, who are in some ways very liberal, in some ways very conservative by our modern standards. And I'd love to hear a little bit about how those two aspects of her were integrated into the show, and how you guys talked about it in building the story for the show.
A. Choma: Hmm. I mean it goes back to the initial discussions we had about how we wanted to portray Anne Lister. You know, we wanted to show her with all her brilliance and her flaws. So her good points and her bad points. She was radic ... I mean clearly she was radically in the sense that she didn't conform to society's expectations of womanhood. And she knew that she could never be a mother or a wife. And she used her intellect in a privileged station in life to follow the path that was right for her.
A. Choma: But at the same time, she was also a product of her time too. We know that she resisted political change that threatened the old order, the traditions that she grew up with. And so we see that in the drama, in the conversation she has with Marian Lister in the first episode. She's challenging her sister Marian's views that we have to move ahead with the times like everybody else is.
A. Choma: But these were ... The old traditions were the ones that she grew up with, and that gave her the financial advantages, which enabled her to buy her books and to travel abroad, for example. So she of course she was keen to not be one for reform.
A. Choma: But of course ... She was radical in different ways, in many different ways, particularly in the way she dressed, in the way she walked, in her studies. I suppose that moves on to one of the next questions you might be asking about science and Anne. But I just think she was very much traditional thinker in many ways, and this kind of is juxtaposed with the fact that she was such a radical person too.
Anna: Yeah. So I do want to ask about her sort of scholarly interests, which were maybe unusual for women at the time. Maybe the dissecting bodies part for sure. But can you tell us a little bit about Anne's interest in science and medicine? And I think one of the things that I really liked about the way that this is depicted in the show is that it's used in this way to give us like a really important insight into her personality. That she's sort of fearless. She is not really concerned with boundaries, like Marian is very horrified that she would have looked at dead bodies, and knew all of this stuff about how people's insides work. But it shows us how curious she is about the world and how sort of driven she is to find out things that she's interested in.
Anna: I think in the show it's just like this ... It's used really well to kind of give us this sense of her personality. And so does that come from the diaries? How does she write about her interest in science and medicine?
A. Choma: Yeah. It does certainly comes from the diaries, and we could have included so much more in series one. I mean Anne was fascinated with her own body. So it's not surprising that for somebody with such a curious mind that she would have wanted to push boundaries of what was deemed acceptable in terms of female study. She was interested in all aspects of science from, for example, the invention of a treadmill introduced for use on criminals, to the examination of a dead body on a slab in order to discover more about life.
A. Choma: But she studied botany and geology. And she once joked that, ,with all of her extensive medical knowledge of the body that if all of the trades failed that she did in life, she could set up for the cure of bodies. I mean, she was that confident.
A. Choma: A typical reading list for Anne Lister might include something like Lindley's Natural System of Botany, or Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology, Virey's History of the Anatomy of Women. She was just so intrigued by the workings of the mind and the body. And through her reading she discovered words for parts of the body that she'd never heard of before. And she described conditions that she'd never heard of before.
A. Choma: So she was very forward thinking to me, when she wrote to Doctor Belcombe about Ann Walker's anxiety and depression. At times she displayed like very, very forward thinking approach to issues around mental health. She said how evidence of mental illness in someone should not define the value of self worth of the person who suffers from it, which is such a modern concept. And yet here we have someone like Anne Lister talking about it 200 years ago, and it all comes from her reading and her studies.
A. Choma: But I think in terms of ... You know, going back to the drama, we focused on Anne's love of anatomy and dissecting. And I think in the field of comparative anatomy where she really found a niche, she placed herself at the cutting edge of science and around theories of evolution with Georges Cuvier and Geoffrey Saint-Hilaire, the leading anatomists in Paris at the time. She attended private lessons with both of these men. And in fact, Geoffrey Saint-Hilaire once commented how he felt privileged being in her company, and not the other way around, because she was so knowledgeable. I mean, she certainly challenged the notion of male exclusivity, but she did it on her own terms, with men she could trust. I think really.
A. Choma: So, we see something of the dissection in series one. We see her dissecting a baby. But she had a room on the Left Bank in Paris to carry out her own dissections. But I think she was concerned with boundaries, and how she appeared to an extent. It was a secret operation in Paris on the whole that she undertook. And she managed to gain the confidence of a young student who supplied body parts to her. And she was very careful, of course, who she told about these dissections.
A. Choma: In fact, it can in ... You know, in my book, Gentleman Jack: The Real Anne Lister, I talk about one of the anecdotes from her time as an anatomist in Paris that she uses to seduce Vere Hobart, which is quite funny. She tells her that she dissected bodies. And I think in a way when she does that, she's showing off, almost shocking Vere. Shocking Vere Hobart into a reaction by showing her just how transgressive and exotic she could be.
A. Choma: But the funny thing was in the end, Vere Hobart played along with it and said to Anne, "what pleasure you will have then in dissecting me." So it was all a bit tongue in cheek. But she was very careful about who she spoke to people about these things.
A. Choma: So I think she was transgressive and she did very, very unusual things and engaged in scientific debate with important people. But at the same time her fearlessness did have its boundaries. It seems like sometimes when you're reading the diaries, especially around that time when she's in Paris and she's studying, that lots of the pages are just littered with like coded parts of these dissected bodies. It's very, very unusual and very, very transgressive for women at the time, especially to write about it as well.
Leila: So were these conversations, you said that she did have limits in how she ... Who she talked about these things with, and how she talks about them. But there are some parts in the show where she is discussing science and medicine, are those things that she actually did do? And how did people respond to her in these settings? And I mean, I don't know if those are things that are indicated and the diaries or not.
A. Choma: I mean we have ... I mean in the drama we have Anne Lister talking to certain characters about her time as an anatomist. But she was very, very careful who she did speak to. And I've only come across her talking to Vere Hobart about it in any great detail. But she, with other people, with medical men, she would discuss freely her interest in science and anything to do with medical matters. She conversed with people like Doctor Jubb, the local Halifax surgeon. And when he suggested to Anne that he wanted to fit up one of his rooms for anatomy lectures, she offered him her services. And she offered to get him some kind of model of an ear, so that he could use that for his first lecture.
A. Choma: So she'd engage in conversation with people she trusted. And there was another woman who lived in Halifax who was very similar to Anne Lister in terms that she was seen as an oddity, an irregular oddity. She was a blue stocking , a woman called Miss Pickford. Miss Pickford was aware of Anne Lister's interest in science and anatomy, and they would often converse with each other through letters. And Miss Pickford would ask Anne ... She asked her once if she would send a model of a phrenological head.
A. Choma: So these strange conversations did happen between some of her acquaintances, but not too often. She was very guarded about people knowing what she did in Paris when she was in the dissecting room.
Leila: So I am curious about the code in the diary itself. Can you talk a little bit about what she based the code on? And since you've been involved in deciphering it, how difficult of an endeavor is that?
A. Choma: The code is a based on lots of different symbols, and each symbol has a letter of the alphabet attached to it. So it's an esoteric mix of algebraic and Greek symbols, and letters, and numbers. And in terms of working on it, once you have the key to the code, it's not too difficult to work your way through the coded sections of the diary. The difficulty is that Anne doesn't punctuate anywhere within the coded section. So all the words and letters just run on to each other. There's no spacing.
A. Choma: And then of course not only are you decoding, but you're dealing with archaic language as well. So it is difficult, but it's not difficult at the same time. You've just got to be aware of the challenges of the fact that she doesn't punctuate and that she doesn't leave any spaces. She can break into code at any time. So often you need to know what's gone before in the plain hand, which is Anne's other form of writing, to know what's happening in the code.
A. Choma: So I think some people find doing the coded sections easier than the plain hand. But it's choice really. The plain hand has it's challenges too.
Leila: Are there other things that she includes in the codes aside from her relationships with women?
A. Choma: Yeah, of course. Anything that she didn't want anybody to see or possibly read, she would keep hidden in the code. So it wouldn't be just sexual things. It could be anything to do with her finances, about how much money she had in the bank, or it could be some gossip she'd heard about somebody in Halifax. Or it could be an inner most thoughts about what she thought of her father, or sister Marian, or something sister Marian had said, that she just didn't want anybody else to ever see. It could be anything that really, she just didn't want to have to include it in the plain hand that she felt was important enough to be coded. And sometimes it could be something really trivial about what she had for tea.
A. Choma: It's very strange. Sometimes very strange things appear in the code, but more than often it was about her love affairs with women and what went on with them.
Rebecca: Is there anything at all that you can tell us about what might be coming in series two? Dare I ask?
A. Choma: Lots more exciting things, I can certainly say that. Well, we want to continue ... We want to continue the story of Anne Lister and Ann Walker, and how following their union at the Holy Trinity Church in York in series one, how they managed and negotiated their way in local society.
Leila: Well, if anyone else doesn't have any questions, I guess that's a good place to wrap up. Thank you so much, Anne, for speaking with us and giving us some more details about the show and a little bit more texture to Anne Lister's life. We really appreciate you taking the time.
Rebecca: Thank you so much. This has been great.
A. Choma: Thank you.
Leila: We hope you enjoyed this bonus episode of The Lady Science podcast. Be sure that you leave us a rating or review on Apple Podcast so that new listeners can find us. And until next time, you can find us on Twitter at @ladyxscience, and on Facebook at @ladysciencemag.
Update: This transcript has been edited and updated to clarify sections previously marked “inaudible”. A previous version incorrectly referred to Doctor Jubb as Doctor Job.
Image credit: Watercolour portrait of Anne Lister of Shibden Hall, 1822 (Wikimedia Commons | Public Domain)