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Inside Out 2010: The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister

Inside Out 2010: The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister

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A life ahead of its time
Move over, Austen. Out of the way, Bronte. Here comes Lister. Nineteenth-century businesswoman, traveller and openly lesbian Anne Lister, that is.

Inside Out shines with the international premiere of the BBC’s production The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, a biopic about a real-life gentlewoman and her forthright dalliances with the fairer sex.

Lister inherited land in Halifax, Yorkshire, and kept an exhaustingly detailed four-million-word diary of her life. Knowing her affairs would be too salacious for the Regency crowd, Lister wrote all the juicy bits in code, which wasn’t deciphered until recently. Lister’s diaries smash through preexisting notions of 1800s womanhood and give queers a period-piece role model.

The film version follows Lister (Maxine Peake, of Criminal Justice and Shameless) on her roller coaster of love affairs and concurrent obsession with the beautiful Mariana (Anna Madeley, of Affinity). When Mariana succumbs to societal pressure and marries, Lister is devastated and charts a new life of scholarly pursuits, business dealings and romantic trysts. But Lister’s goal of settling down with another woman doesn’t seem attainable, until the lovely and unassuming Miss Walker (Christine Bottomley) comes into her life. 

The film characterizes Lister as a woman moving against the grain and all the pressures with which she has to deal. The story smartly balances her life with the emotional strains of her relationships, all with humour and verve.

“I loved the modernity of her story: a 19th-century landowner who believed in civil partnerships and beat men at their own game,” writes director James Kent in an email. “It feels very passionate.”

Thankfully, the film version stays true to Lister’s passionate independence and saucy lifestyle.

“Authenticity is crucial and my makeup, costume and design departments researched Regency England thoroughly,” notes Kent. “You have to enjoy the historical side — the escape to a distant time, but then be reminded how similar these people felt to us today.”

Kent even recruited the help of a lesbian acquaintance to coach him and his leading actresses in the ways of female lovemaking. And does that research pay off!

The performances are nothing short of amazing: Peake is exquisite and delivers a mesmerizing and emotional portrayal, while the supporting cast keep pace with comedy and artfulness — especially Lister’s aunt (Gemma Jones) and Lister’s lesbian friend-with-benefits, Tib (Susan Lynch).

The script, penned by Sugar Rush scribe Jane English, is simply delicious, chock full of racy double entendres that would make Oscar Wilde himself proud. When a young woman admirer says to Lister, “I can’t help wishing you were a gent,” she quips, “Wish away”; and as Mariana’s husband observes, “These learned ladies — no time for us men.”

“I want people to be inspired by Anne,” writes Kent. “She was so ahead of her time, so sexy, determined — sometimes to a fault — but at all times never compromised her beliefs.”

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