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Anne Lister's diaries: From page to screen

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Jane English Jane English | 10:30 UK time, Monday, 31 May 2010

I had never heard of Anne Lister until she popped up in an email, one slow Friday afternoon. Oxford Film and Television were seeking a writer to dramatise her diaries and had attached a potted biography. She was impressive: an independent, self-educated landowner, living in Halifax in the early half of the 19th century, who travelled widely and put herself about in business and politics.

I was interested. Then off she strides to meet her married female friend in a Manchester hotel for a night of passion.

Anne Lister, played by Maxine Peake, and Tib, played by Susan Lynch share a kiss outside some gates


Had I read right? Women meeting for illicit hotel sex in the era of Jane Austen? It just didn't happen, did it?

It proved to be the tip of the iceberg, and I was hooked.

For Anne was also a lusty, self-aware lesbian who had many flirtations and full-blown love affairs, before settling into what was to all intents and purposes a civil marriage. Her diaries are a page-turning first hand account of being a lesbian in Georgian England, and reveal a whole network of women, either lesbian like herself, or willing to "dabble".

I soon realised that everything I knew about women at this time, I knew from fiction - the novels and dramatisations of Austen and the Brontes - and that Anne's version of events somewhat turned all that on its head.

Writing The Secret Diaries Of Miss Anne Lister was a chance to bring an important piece of hidden lesbian history to a wider public, but also to represent women as earthier, funnier and feistier than the genteel creatures more commonly found in period drama.

So where to start? Anne's diaries run to four million words and cover roughly 25 action-packed years. As we were always going to be on a relatively low budget, adventures in Paris and Russia were out, narrowing the focus to Halifax and her beloved Shibden Estate.

Even then, to tell her story fully would take a 10-part returning drama series. With 90 minutes, our drama could only ever be an impression of Anne's life. Which put pressure on getting the essence of Anne herself right.

Maxine Peake, as Miss Anne Lister, sits in a chair

The voiceover which runs through the drama is comprised from Anne's own words. Anne wrote her most intimate thoughts in an elaborate code. As I was ransacking them and broadcasting them to the nation, I felt it only fair that Anne should tell her own story. In life she longed for "a name in the world" but always remained an outsider, so I think she'd appreciate the gesture.

Composing the dialogue was a joy. Anne has a wonderfully rich vocabulary and a droll turn of phrase to draw from (motley set, suspicious bonnet, grubbling... being a few of my favourites).

She often sounds modern (ie when doubting a lover's character: "Only in bed is she excellent") and writes vivid depictions of her friends.

She records conversations which feel alive and present and surprisingly easy to relate to.

Where possible I've quoted the diaries. Otherwise, Anne's voice is so distinctive that once I'd absorbed the material and thought my way into her head, dialogue flowed quite naturally.

If I strayed from Anne's character, Helena Whitbread, our historical consultant - the Halifax woman who transcribed the diaries and who knows Anne Lister better than anyone - was on hand to tell me, in no uncertain terms, what Anne would or wouldn't say or do.

I'm a sucker for a love story and Anne's passion for Mariana Lawton leapt from the pages of the diaries and provided a strong emotional thread for the drama. Mariana broke Anne's heart by marrying a much older, and richer, man. But this is only the beginning, as the drama explores their attempt to sustain a relationship in spite of this rather large obstacle.

I saw Anne and Mariana as fitting that classic Hollywood romantic mould of the couple who're great together but can't quite get it together. Much of the time you want to shake them and say, "Sort it out!"

Anne Lister, played by Maxine Peake, and Marianna, played by Anna Madeley, run hand in hand through the woods

In fact, I may have got too wrapped up in the love story because when director James Kent came on board he highlighted a need for a greater sense of social context: society's ignorance and/or abhorrence of lesbianism; the social pressure to be married; the difficulty for women of maintaining economic independence.

James and I talked through every scene in the script. He wanted to 'download' everything in my head, and it gave me a rare opportunity to share my intentions. These discussions enabled us to hone and polish, and push the script for all its emotional worth.

But of course, this drama would stand or fall on its Anne Lister. When it got the go-ahead and casting suggestions started flying around, panic set in: would they find the right person to play her? But when James called to say he'd cast Maxine Peake, I relaxed.

Like Anne, she throws herself completely into a project, and has the range to capture everything from Anne's strength and emotional intensity, to her vulnerability and humour. And rather helpfully, in the latter stages of writing, Criminal Justice aired. Maxine's performance in that expressed so much without words, it gave me the confidence to go through the script with a red pen and really pare down her dialogue.

I love the finished film and think every member of the cast and crew has dug deep to produce something beautiful. My biggest hope is that our depiction of Anne Lister intrigues people enough to want to seek out this unique woman for themselves in her diaries. Believe me, they're an illuminating read.

Jane English is the scriptwriter of The Secret Diaries Of Miss Anne Lister.

The programme is available on iPlayer until Monday, 7 June


  • Comment number 1.

    The production of The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister was excellent, other that the fact that she was not physically portrayed accurately. It is unfortunate that those that worked on this production had now watched Revealing Anne Lister, the documentary that followed. If they had then they would have realised that she did have beautiful pale skin and flowing red hair, but had beard growth and masculine features. They would have also been made aware that it has taken so long for this extraordinary women to have her true self made known to the world due to decades of various forms of fear and prejudice. Sadly, this has happened once again, either intentionally or by ignorance; would it have been acceptable to show that love scene if it was'nt between two beautiful women? As a mature married man, I believe that lesbianism is still a taboo subject in our society and this view of Anne Lister's life was a sanitised and glamorised one; she has still not received the respect that she deserves from our 'enlightened'modern society.

  • Comment number 2.

    Hi Jane English, I hope you read this. I wanted to send a letter (You know like olden times) but couldnt find an address so I am sending you my appreciations over the web.

    Firstly, Im a 17 year old gay girl, currently studying Pride and Prejudice at college. During those lessons, I used to find myself wishing there was a 19th century story about two women, as Mr Darcy really cant keep my attention span. A story like this is what I have been waiting for. I knew it wasnt the time period of Austens classics that bored me, it was just finding the right characters to read about. I thank you very much for putting these diaries onto the screen, and I sincerely hope that because it was broadcast on the BBC this story will reach many households that are still ignorant to the LGBT community. The way this story was portrayed did us a lot of justice, the normalities of being gay for Miss Lister made me want to be that truthful with myself and others about it-and she was from the 1800s! I will be searching out her diaries-they are available to read, no? I think what you have done is wonderful and am so grateful this story has been allowed to be told.

    Thanks again, and I hope more great stories like this one can be told, to enlighten our still very unaccepting society! I just wish I had the confidence to watch this and share it with my mum and not on iplayer on my laptop, since she was the one who encourged me to learn about all these period dramas.
    It helps to know that lesbians could live and open life in the 19th century too.

  • Comment number 3.

    I read the Diaries Of Ann Lister a couple of years ago and found it almost impossible to put down. I'm intrigued by her character and method of writing. I love her sense of humour and staight to the point bluntness, her strength and vulnerabilties. I have since read more about her life.
    I visited Shibden Hall after reading Anns Diaries and was wondering around thinking, surely someones got to make a film about this woman.
    So I was pleased to learn recently that the BBC had done just that!
    I loved it! Ann was portrayed pretty much as I imagined her apart from her lack of masculinity. I would have prefered to see her show more a masculine manner and dress as this is how I think she was.
    Its a pitty the Beeb didnt do her whole life from Childhood and right up to her death in Russia in a series of episodes, that would have been fab, because lets be honest there was never a dull moment in the life of Ann Lister!!

  • Comment number 4.

    Can you explain why the house featured was Oakwell Hall, & not Shibden ?

  • Comment number 5.

    Dear feellikerain, I did indeed read your lovely comments and am very moved that the drama meant so much to you. Anne does write with an inspiring honesty, so I hope you manage to track down her diaries (you can order online or try your local library). The best starting point is "I Know My Own Heart", edited by Helena Whitbread. Best of luck.
    Thanks for the other comments. Re. Shibden, everyone really wanted to film there - it's a very special place - but, as I understand, the final decision came down to logistics. It was a very tight 18 day shoot and the locations used were deemed more practical.
    Thanks again

  • Comment number 6.

    Hi there! I must confess I grinned when I read that Jane English found out about Anne Lister so late in life. I was working as an au pair in East Grindstead in 1990 and found the Virago (?) edition of Anne Lister's diaries, among other precious books like Oranges are not the only fruit, Radclyffe Hall and Una love/life story (forgot the name of that book), etc at the local library. I can say without exaggeration that those books and that time saved my life. I hope I'll be able to watch this. I bet it will be as good as Oranges..., Portrait of a marriage or Brideshead Revisited or Jewel of the crown, from the trailer and pictures I've seen. Long live the BBC and its great creative minds!

  • Comment number 7.

    Has a German enterprise already received a licence for the film "The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister "?


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