With Gentleman Jack coming to HBO on April 22, 2019, I thought I’d take a more in-depth look at the first filmed version of Anne Lister’s life, 2010’s The Secret Diaries of Anne Lister. Both take as their source material the coded diaries written by Anne Lister, who lived from April 3, 1791, to September 22, 1840, and is most noted for declaring in her writings that she only loved women and had multiple affairs with other women.
Admittedly, this is not an apples-to-apples comparison since the new production is a six-part miniseries and the older one is a 92-minute TV film. The plot lines of each biography are quite different. Secret Diaries covers the time from about 1816, when Anne’s girlfriend Mariana marries a wealthy gentleman, until around 1832 or shortly after, because that’s when Anne meets and falls in love with local heiress Ann Walker. Gentleman Jack begins in 1832 with Anne meeting Ann Walker and is entirely about their affair.
I’m guessing the costume designer for the earlier production, Theresa Rymer, had a smaller budget than Tom Pye did for the new series because Secret Diaries has a fair number of recycled costumes. Plus, for a movie that supposedly spans 16 years when fashions changed quite dramatically from a very narrow, slim gown silhouette to a shape with wide sleeves and skirts, we don’t see any of that on-screen. All the women are clothed in strictly Regency 1810s fashions. Furthermore, the title card that opens the TV movie quotes from Lister’s diary and includes the date of 1821, which, to the uninitiated, might indicate that the events take place in the 1820s. Not very clear!
But for all these limitations, this is a wonderful film that uses many authentic historical facts of Anne Lister’s life to tell a story about a woman determined to find love, despite not fitting into society’s tight strictures. I’ve read the published diaries, and this movie’s script references many specific events that Lister writes of, although just many details are, of course left out. Lister’s father and sister are removed entirely, even though they were important to her financial situation, and Lister’s many flirtations and lovers are whittled down to just four women. Her travels in Europe are removed entirely. The film’s hour-and-a-half is entirely consumed with relationship drama between Anne and Mariana, and finally Anne moving on.
So let’s see how it all sorts out, shall we?
Anne (Maxine Peake) is first introduced at a outing with a group of female friends, foremost among them Mariana Belcombe (Anna Madeley), who is present with her mother and sisters. Also present is Isabella ‘Tib’ Norcliffe (Susan Lynch).
In the next scene, Anne is singing to Tib’s piano accompaniment at a small party gathering. Mariana’s mother stops the performance to announce that her daughter is now engaged to marry the wealthy (old, fat, boring) Charles Lawton.
From this point on, Anne swears to only wear black. Her outfits aren’t all that boring though because designer Theresa Rymer made sure to include lovely period details such as piping, buttons, belts, and fabrics with texture or pattern such as tone-on-tone stripes and damask.
With no letters from Mariana, Anne sets out to become interested in Miss Browne. This flirtation feels a little trivial in the TV movie, where in her diaries, the affection seems like it may be more reciprocal and goes on for quite some time. But like many of Anne’s relationships, her hopes are dashed when Miss Browne is married off to a man (that part isn’t shown here).
Just when it seems like Anne has given up on Mariana, she receives a letter from her former lover asking to meet at a hotel in Manchester, presumably alone. Anne hops a carriage ride there ASAP, but finds Mariana in the hotel with her husband. Yeah yeah, he wasn’t supposed to be there. The two women manage to spend most of the trip alone together anyway, featuring some shopping and several costume changes over an undetermined period of time (seems like hours, but did it take days? IDK!).
Some time after the hotel trip, Mariana comes to Shibden Hall to celebrate Anne’s birthday with the Lister family and Tib. Anne is thrilled, but Tib is sad and jealous, so she gets drunk at dinner and causes a scene. Mariana asks Anne if she and Tib have been hooking up again, which, duh, they had been because Mariana was married and ignoring Anne. So then Mariana gets jealous and tells Anne to ditch Tib. So cruel!
Mariana leaves, and Anne thinks they’re reunited and it feels so good. She focuses on fixing up her ancestral home, which turns out might have coal underneath its land. She begins to take notice of a neighbor, Ann Walker, who recently became heir to an nearby estate.
Everybody who’s anybody shows up at a fancy ball … but nobody has a good time. Rumors of Anne’s same-sex relationships are floating around town, and someone spills the T to Mariana’s husband. Mariana freaks out at Anne for blowing their cover. Tib runs after Anne, trying to tell her to ditch the married girl in the closet because Tib will be there for you, Anne. In the movie, Tib gets pushed aside for minor indiscretions. In the diaries, Isabella’s personality is simply not suited to Anne’s. Maybe this movie shouldn’t have cast the incredibly likable Susan Lynch as Tib & not given her such sympathetic and heart-breaking scenes with Maxine Peake because I want them to be together!
After the ball, Anne confronts Mariana one more time and demands to know where their relationship stands. Unfortunately, Mariana is not serious about Anne’s dream of being together, and she doesn’t believe a same-sex relationship can have any future. Anne walks out on her for good. Now, she focuses on the coal issue to earn her living and Ann Walker to warm her heart and bed. Walker is genuinely sympathetic to Lister’s affections and has no prejudices against living as her wife. This might not be the grand passion Lister had with her past lover, but Anne will not have to hide who she is or how she loves, and that is essential for her happiness.
Have you seen or read The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister? Have you also watched Gentleman Jack?