Is Nell Jackson Inspired by a Real Highwaywoman?

Disney+’s British historical series ‘Renegade Nell’ chronicles the life of Nell “Nelly” Jackson (Louisa Harland), who gets forced to become a highwaywoman to protect herself and her siblings after her father gets killed. When she gets wrongfully accused of another murder, she sets out to prove her innocence, only for the same to get challenged by her notoriety as a thief. Even though British history is filled with infamous highway robbers, ranging from Dick Turpin to Claude Duval, Nell is not based on one of them. She is the creation of Sally Wainwright, who led the writers of the show. Still, Nell’s experiences have unignorable connections with English history!

Nell: An 18th Century Woman

Even though Nell Jackson never existed in real life, her experiences are immensely rooted in reality, which makes her a representative of rebellious women who lived during the 18th century. Through the protagonist, Sally Wainwright’s show explores what it means to be a woman at such a point in British history, which is nothing but male-dominated or patriarchal. Nell was created in such a way as to delve into what their lives might have been and pay homage to the nonconformists among them. Sally might have not assigned highway robbery as a random “profession” to her character. Nell being a highwaywoman is a significant part of her purpose as a character.

Highway robbery can be seen as one of the most masculine “branches” of theft. The robbers were known to be intimidating due to their physical features, strength, and startling displays of their skills. The celebration of real highwaymen such as Dick Turpin as a symbol of masculinity makes the connection between the latter and the “branch” evident. By making Nell a highwaywoman, Sally deconstructed the stereotypes associated with highway robbery. In the series, Nell is the epitome of strength and courage. The men who get robbed by her are weak and scared of her. The screenwriter must have gotten inspired by several real highwaywomen who were once feared by men.

Katherine Ferrers is infamous as an alleged highwaywoman. Like Nell, who turns to robbery after the death of her father and to support her siblings, Ferrers supposedly became a highwaywoman due to her fast-dwindling fortunes in the absence of her husband. It is believed that Ferrers was killed by gunshot wounds she sustained amid a robbery. Nell also reminds us of Susan Higges, who reportedly had a 20-year-long life as a criminal. Similar to Nell, she dressed as a man to steal from her targets. However, Higges was not as righteous as Nell. As per reports, she was a murderer who ended up in gallows to be executed.

Even though Nell’s experiences are immensely different from the lives and actions of Ferrers and Higges, the latter duo’s abilities to leave their mark in a male-dominated “field” echo what the former achieves as well. To understand how Nell breaks societal expectations, it is important to dive into the life of Sofia Wilmot. Even though Sofia is the secondary antagonist, she and Nell are two sides of the same coin. Both of them are restrained due to their gender, which forces them to challenge prejudices and stereotypes. The Earl of Poynton asking Sofia to lay low when Queen Anne comes to her residence and her efforts to safeguard her estate sheds light on what women were dealing with in the 18th century.

Through Sofia, Sally’s show displays how controlled women were back in a pivotal period in British history. After establishing the same, the narrative relies on Nell to depict how women like her broke those restraints and lived above and beyond what the patriarchal society of the time expected from them.

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