The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, In-Depth

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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!

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

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).

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

Mariana (left) is pulled away from the group by Anne.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

Simple pelisse gowns but notice how a red skirt peeps out from under Mariana’s, plus her lapels have red piping. This will be her signature color.

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.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

The one & only time we’ll see Anne in a colorful dress.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

Mariana’s gown was first made for the 2008 Sense and Sensibility & has been recycled a few times.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

But Anne’s gown won’t get recycled because she runs back to her room & tears it off herself in a fit after hearing of her lover’s engagement. At least that shows she’s wearing proper Regency undergarments.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

Anne bitterly attends Mariana’s wedding.

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.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

Plus proper accessories like this watch.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

Buttons, belt, and lace add interest.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

High collar, frog closures too.

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).

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

In the diary, Miss Browne is considered very pretty & fashionably dressed, although there’s a hint that her family is a bit gauche or nouveau riche (unlike the more respectable Listers).

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

Anne does take Miss Browne as her walking companion. That mauve spencer was made for Mary Bennett in the 2005 Pride and Prejudice & has been recycled a lot.

This promo pic shows the white gown she wears under the spencer, but she never runs around in the movie in only this.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

Miss Browne also wears that spencer over a different dress when they walk in Shibden Hall’s gated garden.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

Miss Browne’s reaction to being kissed is right out of the diaries — “Miss Browne said kissing was an odd thing & people made quere [sic] remarks about it.” This is also a good view of Anne’s elegant damask coat.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

Tib with Anne & Miss Browne in the garden. This red riding habit she wears was made for the 1996 Poldark & has been recycled frequently

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

Anne throws on an embroidered waistcoat for shooting. In a later scene, she wears this over a white shirt.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

Tib & Anne had been lovers years ago, before Tib introduced Anne to Mariana.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

They resume the affair, although Tib is far more in love with Anne than vice versa.

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!).

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

Mariana wears a really fancy gown for a random meeting at a hotel room.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

Check out this sheer sari-fabric gown with tons of gold embroidery worn over a low-cut red gown. Wowza.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

Note the lace trim on Anne’s black outfit. Since her clothes aren’t shown much in these scenes, this is how we’ll know that she gets a whole costume change along with Mariana.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

They leave Mariana’s husband back at the hotel & go shopping, having changed outfits. Mariana is again in red (her color), now with a bonnet & grey spencer.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

This is the same damask coat Anne’s been wearing.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

Anne has bought them wedding rings to exchange & wear on necklace chains. There’s no evidence of that happening in the diaries — the closest is a discussion of their “engagement” being broken by Mariana’s marriage to a man.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

And here, after the shopping trip, is a close-up showing Anne wearing different lace than before, so she’s changed costume at least once on this seemingly short trip.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

After exchanging rings, Mariana puts the spencer back on, & they leave the hotel.

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!

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

Tib arrives at Shibden Hall with a brace of pheasants (that I think she shot) & wearing this smart green riding habit, which she also wore at the very first scenes of the movie.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

Mariana arrives with a birthday gift of a lace collar. She’s wearing a red pelisse gown — red is definitely her color, especially once married. She’s the scarlet woman, cheating on her husband with a woman & trying to control Anne’s sexuality & keep if all for herself.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

IRL, Mariana got a sexually transmitted infection from her cheating husband & passed it on to Anne, who went to France in search of a cure.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

Mariana wears this gown for Anne’s birthday dinner (but with her hair up, unlike this promo pic), & it’s the same gown she wore under the grey spencer in Manchester. The gown was made for Caroline Bingley in 2005’s Pride & Prejudice & has been recycled several times.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

Poor Tib gets drunk at dinner, but at least she’s wearing an interesting striped gown.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

The next morning, when Anne tells Tib she has to leave, we get a lovely view of Tib’s Regency stays.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

After some sex & bathtub scenes, Mariana has this idea to do Anne’s hair for dinner.

Yeah, no. It’s neither period nor flattering. Mariana is the worst girlfriend ever.

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.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

Behind-the-scenes photo of the riding habit Anne wears through the end of the film. The shape is more 1820s than the previous costumes, with a slightly lower waistline & fuller sleeves.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

Ann Walker mourns the brother who died, thus making her an heiress.

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!

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

Anne kind of begins to flirt with the other Ann at the ball. Walker must be coming out of mourning because this ballgown is brown, not black (Lister is wearing black).

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

The only time, post-marriage, Mariana doesn’t wear red! Of course, in this scene, she is trying to look like the good little wifey, perfectly proper, & having no idea what any of these rumors are about.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

In contrast, Anne is out & proud & wants a real wife by her side.

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.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

Anne Walker’s color palette is all neutral browns, greens, & blues, very soft & earthy.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

This promo pic shows the deep blue gown she wears with spencers & shawls.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

Lister teaches Walker to shoot.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

Lister defies bullies in the street & protects Walker.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

Anne confronts a neighboring coal magnate while wearing a rather revealing yet severe black gown.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

Walker plays chess at Shibden wearing a brown dotted pelisse robe.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

The two perform their own wedding ceremony.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

In a final scene, Ann is potting plants while wearing a brown dress & a green-stripe apron. This is very obviously emphasizes her peaceful, grounded nature, bringing Lister back to earth & keeping her safe.

 

Have you seen or read The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister? Have you also watched Gentleman Jack?

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About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

4 Responses

  1. Roxana

    A very interesting and gutsy woman who lived life on her own terms and paid the price for violating the conventions. I admire her.

    Reply
  2. Susan Pola Staples

    I tried watching this when Gentleman Jack was on, but only got as far as Miss Browne flirtation. I stopped bc Maxine Peake wasn’t as good of an Anne Lister as Suranne Jones is and the costumes were all Regency and not the 1821 wider sleeves, etc. But I definitely will watch it all the way through since you’re recommending it.

    Besides Marianne was not a favourite character in both Gentleman Jack as she is of the type to want a bit on the side. She married a rich, boring, syphilitic man.

    Reply
  3. Shashwat

    I don’t know if it’s historically accurate or not,but I don’t like how the silk gowns are bunched up in the bosom area.Bodices were gathered,but there were always a few neat pleats to tidy the look.Perhaps the recycled-costumes-misfit-stuff.Also I find the transition from the very small bodice to an almost columnar skirt a bit wonky here.The period illustrations with equally small bodices don’t look that way,but Regency didn’t go for photorealism.(I know it isn’t Regency until 1915,still)
    Are the ringlets on Ann accurate?Those ringlets feel neither tight enough to resemble sausage curls,nor natural enough for the favoured wisps of hair tendrils look.

    Reply

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