aGLIFF 2010 (Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival)
By Don Simpson | September 6, 2010
Director: James Kent
Writer: Jane English
Starring: Maxine Peake, Anna Madeley, Gemma Jones, Michael Culkin, Ted Holden, Christine Bottomley, Dean Lennox Kelly, Tina O’Brien, Susan Lynch, Alan David
Anne Lister (Maxine Peake) is an unmarried 19th century Yorkshire woman living at Shibden Hall with her aunt (Gemma Jones) and uncle (Alan David). Lister desires one thing from life: to have someone to love and to share her life with. The person she has in mind for that part is Mariana Belcombe (Anna Madeley), with whom she has developed a clandestine romantic relationship (they have “connected”); that is until 19th century English culture gets the better of Belcombe and she marries a rich aged widower, Charles Lawton (Michael Culkin).
Depressed and permanently clad in black (thus freeing herself from “the tyranny of fashion”), Lister studiously immerses herself in her library. A year passes and Lister begins to consider finding herself someone else to “connect” with – besides her ever loyal lesbian lapdog, Tib (Susan Lynch). Lister ogles an attractive young woman in church, Miss Browne (Tina O’Brien), with whom she promptly becomes friends (Lister utilizes the pick-up line, “Do you like the poetry of Byron?”). Before Lister is able to “connect” with Miss Brown, Belcombe reenters the picture. The two women meet in a hotel in Manchester. Belcombe tells Lister that she has missed her and hopes that upon her husband’s death they will live together as companions. They even buy wedding rings to wear around their necks until they can live together. Returning to Shibden, Miss Browne is tossed to the proverbial gutter.
Christopher Rawson (Dean Lennox Kelly), a local industrialist and neighbor, proposes marriage to Lister. She instantly shoots him down. This prompts Lister to inform her aunt and uncle that she desires to remain unmarried and live her life with a female companion; being that Lister’s aunt and uncle never married, they offer no rebuttal.
Eventually, Belcombe ends her affair with Lister fearing that her husband has found them out – she would rather die than have people know about their relationship. Belcombe proposes that they can still be happy together, but they will have to live apart. That does not jive with Lister’s ideal arrangement of living with a female companion.
Rawson reenters the picture with a proposition to lease a parcel of Lister’s land to dig a coal mine; Lister promptly declines, opting to mine it herself. In order to afford to do so, Lister forms a business alliance with Ann Walker (Christine Bottomley), a wealthy unmarried neighbor. After being intimidated and harassed by Rawson, Walker moves in with Lister at Shibden, inciting shocking rumors about the two women. Walker admits that she does not want a husband and wishes to live at Shibden with Lister happily ever after.
Written by Jane English, the script draws from Lister’s four-million-word diary which has been published in two volumes (in 1988 and 1992). Approximately one-sixth of Lister’s diary is encrypted in a unique code (combining Greek letters and algebra) and graphically describes her lesbian affairs and tactics for seduction. The majority of the diary deals with Lister’s everyday life – not merely her lesbianism – containing her thoughts on social events, national events and her business interests. A pioneering 19th century proto-feminist, Lister was a wealthy Yorkshire landowner, diarist and traveler; she is often referred to as “the first modern lesbian.” Society may have insinuated things and patronized her, but Lister plowed onward, remaining utterly unvanquished.
Directed by James Kent, The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister does leave out some seemingly important details of Lister’s life, most notably her visit with the Ladies of Llangollen – the other famous lesbians of the 19th century. (Lister’s academic achievements as well as her love for travel and mountaineering also go unmentioned.) It might have also been more interesting to focus a wee bit less on Lister’s lesbianism and a tad bit more on her intellectual strength and unyielding willpower as a successfully independent 19th century woman. Focusing primarily on the naughty bits of her diary – some snogging lesbians here, some naked breasts there – The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister does not do Lister the justice that she deserves. In the end, this film really only makes Lister look like a horny bird.