I'm delighted to finally have seen the film The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister. I first heard about it in June at the Frameline San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival which I attended for a short film I wrote. I missed it then and I also missed it at Outfest in LA where I was for the same purpose in July. I had forgotten about it until an ad on Facebook caught my eye (how often does that happen??). I clicked on "The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister" and it took me to the website of the Gotham Screen International Film Festival where I discovered the film was screening on Sunday night at Tribeca Cinemas.
I couldn't possibly miss it a third time, so I called up my friend who I have a little crush on and invited her to see this movie. The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister is a BBC biopic of a woman who was the lesbian Jane Austen of her time. It has all the sentiment, manners and drama of Pride and Prejudice with the added pleasures of a sapphic storyline and steamy sex scenes.
Anne Lister (played deliciously by Maxine Peake) is an unmarried orphan woman living with her aunt and uncle at Shipdon Hall, their family estate in Halifax, England. The film opens with Anne running across hills to join her friends Mariana and Tibb at a picnic. A few minutes later we find Anne pressing Mariana up against a tree on a woodland trail, kissing her passionately and groping underneath her skirt. We understand this is not the first time they've "connected" (19th century British for hooked-up), when Mariana says, "You always kiss so well." * It seems that nothing can separate these lovers. But alas, in the next scene at Shipdon, it is announced that Mariana is to be married to the boorish aging Charles Lawton to whom we were introduced at the picnic, when an older lady emphasizes to Anne that he recently lost his wife.
Anne is livid and heartbroken. The betrayal sets the story in motion as the narrative follows Anne's relationship with Mariana: from pining without a single letter from her love and distracting herself with other women to a reuniting tryst and promise that they will live together as wives once Charles dies. It shouldn't be long, Mariana assures Anne, considering how he's ailing every day. However nature does not work in their favor. Charles remains alive and well and although Mariana admits she was foolish to marry him, Anne's patience runs out when she realizes Mariana is too ashamed and/or afraid to leave her husband. Anne finds solace and purpose in intellectual and business pursuits, activities that were considered unbecoming for a woman of her time.
What is most remarkable about this story is how open Anne was about her sexuality in 1820s rural England. She dressed in black all the time, often with gentleman jackets and hats. She documented her life in a diary, with her lesbian affairs written in code that was a combination of Greek and algebra. When her aunt and uncle attempt to find male suitors for their niece, Anne clearly expresses that she does not want a husband, that she would prefer to share her life with a female companion. She doesn't explain any further, and she doesn't have to. Her unconventional interests and behaviors are enough to make society talk and give her the nickname: Gentleman Jack. Though harassed by some, she is never really scorned for her choices. Her relatives and close friends accept her as "unusual" and she manages to live out her desires and maintain her financial independence without compromising her nature by taking a husband.
Maxine Peake, who reminds me of Katharine Hepburn, leads an excellent cast including Anna Madeley as Mariana and Gemma Jones as Aunt Lister. James Kent's directing is smooth and the production design gorgeous. The ending feels a bit abrupt, but it's forgivable in the grand scheme of the film. Anne's choice of female companion in the end was not a passionate one, but it was perhaps less a compromise than Mariana's, who remained with her husband till his death at 89, which is revealed in a tag of titles before the credits roll.
Naturally it was difficult to be a lesbian in early 19th century England, but the movie also shows us that the nature of female friendship at the time made it relatively easy for a girl to enjoy pussy and not suffer for it. Or at least not get caught. It was acceptable for women friends to walk arm in arm and even sleep in the same bed. The conjectures and gossip arise more from Anne's masculine interests and appearance than time spent wooing ladies. Perhaps if she had dressed conventionally feminine and wasn't so intellectual and bold and independent people would not have suspected she was a dyke.
In a scene in which she turns down a marriage proposal, insulting the man with her honesty, I was reminded of the scene in Pride and Prejudice when Elizabeth first rejects Darcy. I think it still holds true today that men are often intimidated by bold women. The Elizabeth Bennetts and Anne Listers of the world turn men on and off because they're honest and open and don't do anything unless their heart is in it.
If you're a Jane Austen fan, watch this movie. If you're queer, go see this movie. If you melt over stories of romance and passion struggling against the moral codes of society, this movie is for you. Can you tell I identify with Anne? Sexuality aside, if you root for characters who are true to themselves no matter what the odds, then you will absolutely love The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister.
* Don't hold me to the accuracy of that quote, it's from memory