I have to confess: I wasn’t actually going to cover this show. After the straight run of Call the Midwife, Victoria, and Game of Thrones, I was a bit tired. But then I caught the last 15 or so minutes of the second episode the other night, and I realised that this show is fantastic and I’d be an idiot not to cover it. So, here we are!
The gentleman in question is not a gentleman at all, but a lady: Anne Lister, who was an actual person (and a remarkable one). But Anne is not your typical 19th century lady. To put it very, very simply, she lives her life like she’s a man. She eschews the ridiculous fashions of the day in favour of rather severely tailored black skirts, coats, and waistcoats. Not for her the goofy bonnets: she favours a top hat (and rocks it, I might add!) She conducts her business in a manner so forthright that she’d probably be called a bitch even today, and she has sex with women.
She’s complicated! She loves her family but looks down on them, viewing them as narrow and provincial whereas she is widely travelled; a nomad, unable to stay still. And yet she is the one who owns the family estate, it having been willed to her by her uncle who (correctly) realised she’d be a much better landlord than her father. She’s not an unkind woman, but she’s definitely blunt, and there are hints she has her class’s cavalier attitude to the lower orders. She’s also, as we soon find out, nursing a broken heart.
Onto the story!
We begin by cutting between three horse-drawn conveyances. In a closed carriage ride two expensively dressed ladies, one older and one maybe in her 20s. In an open cart piled with furnishings and belongings ride a farmer with his wife and a son, perched on the back. And then there’s some complete asshole in a flyer, racing down the road like he’s in some 18th century version of the Indy 500. The carriage and cart meet at a narrow bridge and prepare to pass in a civilised manner. But along comes this douchebag, who rushes the bridge, cutting off both other vehicles. The ladies in the carriage are jostled and startled, but the cart is forced to jerk to one side to avoid a collision, and the little boy is thrown clear over the side of the bridge.
The Lister home, Shibden Hall, is the nearest place, so everyone goes there. The little boy is in a seriously bad way. His leg is very badly broken and he’s screaming in pain and bleeding heavily. Marian, Anne’s sister, swiftly arranges for his care, issuing orders and sending for a doctor before smoothing her hair and processing into the sitting room, where the two ladies from the carriage are attempting to steady their rattled nerves.
Marian, by the way, is an interesting character. They’re all interesting characters, but I’m particularly drawn to her just now. First, she’s played by the same actress who played Yara Greyjoy, so I already like her. Second, she seems to be a complicated character too. She’s definitely far more conventional than Anne and has obviously played the role of “good daughter” who plays by society’s rules, knows her place, doesn’t rock the boat, but is definitely a very competent young woman who can step up and take charge when necessary. And yet, for all that, she’s so clearly the unfavourite. Her father and aunt very obviously prefer Anne, or, at least, admire her to such a high degree that they seem to like her more. And Marian realises this and calls them out on bringing Anne into the conversation about the accident even though she’s in no way involved.
It’s essentially a way to tell these visitors–Ann Walker and her aunt (Aunt Ann, which shouldn’t get confusing at all), who lives nearby–that Anne is coming home. She’s been away for quite some time, staying with a very prominent family she met in Paris, but just like that she’s returning to Shibden and that’s such a strange occurrence that as soon as she arrives absolutely everyone in the family starts asking her, in a tone that suggests they already know, what happened down south.
We’ll get to that. Before we move on, it’s good to know that Ann Walker is an heiress, having lost both of her parents and, more recently, her brother, who died while on honeymoon in Italy. Wow, that’s unfortunate. She has a sister who’s married and therefore not around much.
Anne arrives home with much ado: driving the public coach because the coachman fell off and shattered his arm at some point. Lots of bad carriage accidents happening in this neighbourhood today. Anne’s brought along a French lady’s maid, Eugenie, but has lost the family’s groom because the guy got shot.
This part of the story’s a bit weird, because the way it’s mentioned amongst the characters it seems kind of funny to the audience, but then you realise the guy died, and died slowly because he was up a tree at the time, trying to scare off some birds for the rich people, and he wound up getting shot himself, falling out of the tree, and presumably dying of a brain injury a couple of days later. Everyone acts like this is a minor inconvenience, like getting drizzly weather the day you planned to have your tea outside. Kind of an interesting glimpse into how the upper classes viewed the servant classes.
And that theme continues to some extent when the housekeeper realises Eugenie is pregnant with the dead groom’s baby. Eugenie thinks it might be ok, that Anne will understand since she obviously has fleshy desires of her own, but the housekeeper firmly tells her that she’ll be out on her ear if she says a word. So, we do not yet know how this is going to play out.
Over lunch her first day home, Anne learns that the estate agent is dying of dropsy. Poor guy. Too bad Isobel Crawley‘s not around to save him. Also, the rents are due to be collected. Anne asks who’s going to do the collecting and everyone just goes veeeery quiet.
She takes herself to the agent’s house to find out what’s up. The poor guy is very clearly on his way out, and is pretty out of it. He manages to rally round enough to hand over the estate’s books and tell her that one guy hasn’t paid up in months. Also, there’s coal on the estate, and with steam power starting to come into its own, she really might want to think about exploiting that.
Anne collects the rents herself, and throws the non-payer off his land. The reason he wasn’t paying, by the way, is because he’s very elderly and simply couldn’t work the farm anymore. Anne’s family call her out for so cruelly throwing the man out of his home and Anne just shrugs and says he can go rely on his family. That’s pretty harsh, but an estate is a business, so… well, there you go. She also hires a new agent, Samuel Washington, who also works for the Walkers and seems to really have a good head on his shoulders. When Anne mentions possibly renting the coal mining interests out, he counters by saying she should mine the coal herself, maintaining control and keeping the considerable profits.
She probably will, too, because she needs the distraction. She’s come home because her lover, Vere, left her in order to marry a man. It broke Anne’s heart and not even a brief visit from another old girlfriend can perk her up. The girlfriend suggests Anne find a man to marry, just for convenience sake, but Anne’s not interested. What she is interested in is Ann Walker.
It’s not yet clear whether she likes her for her or for her money, though I’m guessing at the moment it’s the latter because I can’t quite fathom why she’d be attracted to other aspects of her. Don’t get me wrong, Ann’s pretty and seems sweet, but she also appears to be rather frail and insipid, and she’s definitely costumed and styled to be the polar opposite of Anne (so many Ann/es!) Women’s styles of the 1830s were pretty ridiculous and infantile to begin with (all those silly piled up curls and frilly, frothy dresses! They looked like overdressed dolls!) but Ann kind of dials that up to 11. She’s all blonde ringlets and lace and flounces. This is not a girl who lifts a finger to do anything useful, whereas Anne definitely does. So, it’s not yet clear why Anne Lister would be emotionally attracted to Ann Walker. I think it’s about the money. And maybe looks. For now.