Review: The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister

Maxine Peake and Anna Madeley in The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister

A comment from a reader sent me on a hunt for The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, which I found on Amazon Video. This 2010 BBC film introduced me to “the first modern lesbian in British history,” and sent me searching through references on Wikipedia.

I first heard the name Anne Lister when I learned Sally Wainwright, a British writer I’ve admired for a long time, was writing an 8 hour series about her.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister beat Sally to the starting line with its tale of love and longing in 19th Century England.

Maxine Peake and Anna Madeley in The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister
Anne and Miriana hid their relationship.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister concentrates mostly on Anne Lister (Maxine Peake) and her great love for Mariana Belcombe (Anna Madeley).

Based on interviews with Sally Wainwright about her upcoming Gentleman Jack, that series will be more about Lister’s relationship with Ann Walker, played here by Christine Bottomley.

Anne Lister’s 4 million words of personal diaries, some of it in code, were the basis of this film, written by Jane English.

Anne was out and obvious at a time when it just wasn’t done. She was also a scholar and businesswoman. Her style of dress, her public attention to women, the way she moved through the world, all made her the object of intense gossip and mistreatment.

Anne lived at her home in Yorkshire, Shibden Hall, with her aunt (Gemma Jones) and uncle (Alan David). She was madly in love with Mariana. Mariana married a man and broke Anne’s heart. Later Mariana showed up at Shibden Hall wanting to keep her relationship with Anne going, but secretly. She promised to “marry” Anne and move to Shibden Hall with her as soon as her husband died.

Anne tried to maintain this relationship for a while, living mostly on loneliness and longing. Her dear friend Tib (Susan Lynch) wanted Anne with the same longing that Anne wanted Mariana. Anne occasionally gave in to Tib, but made it clear that she loved Mariana. Finally Anne realized that Mariana’s husband was in fine health and Mariana would never leave him for her. Tib wanted to step into the gap, but Anne wouldn’t have it.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister showed Anne’s pursuit of a straight girl from the village. These scenes gave us a hint of how Anne flirted and courted.

Then she met a rich woman named Ann Walker. By this time Anne had inherited her estate from her uncle, but she was short on cash. She was a entrepreneur, using the coal on her land to make money. Ann Walker’s estate also had coal. Anne established a business partnership with Ann Walker.

Maxine Peake and Christine Bottomley in The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister
Seduction by coal and target practice where Ann Walker was concerned

I found it a bit hard to believe that Anne Lister, who according to reports on her diaries tried to seduce every woman she got close to, didn’t make a play for Ann Walker. According to The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, Ann Walker made a play for Anne Lister instead.

They exchanged rings in a private ceremony and agreed that they were married. They were out and proud about it, too. They were happy and content. Maybe Anne didn’t have the same wild passion for Ann that she’d had for Mariana, but she found someone who suited her and loved her. They were together until Anne Lister’s death.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister was beautifully filmed and acted. There were some very sexy scenes, which I didn’t think the BBC allowed. Yet, there they were, so it must.

Even if I hadn’t gone in with a preset interest in Anne Lister via my fandom for Sally Wainwright, I would have enjoyed the film. It was very well done.

I scrounged through the references on Wikipedia after seeing the film. The film was accurate in what it could portray in an hour and a half.

I learned from the references on Wikipedia that Anne Lister had far more sexual adventures than the film had time to explore, all of which she recorded in her diaries. She was described as very masculine, what we might now call butch, but the photo of her on Wikipedia doesn’t look that masculine to me. Here’s a good resource: Jeanette Winterson on Anne Lister.

I’ll happily watch 8 more hours of drama featuring Anne Lister. Bring it, Sally.

4 thoughts on “Review: The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister”

  1. I am really looking forward to Sally Wainsright’s production. She is a great writer of women and relationships. Suranne Jones is a great casting choice.

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