The first of my TLS reviews from the LLGFF is now out in print, which means I can post it here.
THE SECRET DIARIES OF MISS ANNE LISTER (LLGFF and BBC2)
In a way, the story of Anne Lister is one made for film, because her vivid, self-fabulated sense of self is one that – while entirely true – fits a lof of Hollywood’s mythopaeic story structures about self-realization in the face of considerable disadvantage. After all, Anne Lister grew up a poor relation of gentility and wealth in Regency Yorkshire; she was a cheerily predatory lesbian in a world of quadrilles, arranged marriages and sentimental friendships; she was a serious scholar at a time when women were supposed to have accomplishments rather than interests. To a large extent, she managed her life on her own terms, and when she died of a fever in the Caucasus mountains in her fiftieth year, it was as a rich woman with a loving wife.
She also managed, also against the odds, to ensure herself a measure of immortality. She kept detailed diaries, large parts of them heavily encrypted, which spell out almost everything – her yearnings for true love, her fascination with some of the obscurer Silver Age Latin poets, her schemes for developing a coal mine on the land she would eventually inherit. Luckily for her also, her diaries were not decoded until an age that could appreciate them, and by an amateur historian, Helena Whitbread, who appreciated just how significant they were. When Virago published a selection of the diaries, they created something of a controversy in feminist circles; they blew a colossal hole in a historiographic tradition which assumed that the history of lesbianism was a history of emotional attachment rather than of occasional rampant sexual adventurism. Ann Lister, with her use of sex toys, her occasionally earthy sexuality and her emotional pragmatism, was the worst nightmare of thinkers like Sheila Jeffreys, who wanted to maintain that the culture of lesbian bars, motorbikes and endlessly entwined circles of pickups- turned-friends-turned-lovers was a historical aberration.
James Kent’s film of the diaries for the BBC somewhat downplays the raunchier side of Anne Lister – partly for purely practical budgetary reasons, we see none of the parties and balls at which Ann occasionally persuaded random young women into sexual experimentation. The film concentrates on her life as heiress-in-waiting, and on three of the more important relationships in her life. The film’s visual style is very much that of the standard BBC classic ‘bonnet film’ adaptation; it is not even trail-blazing in its use of lesbianism, given the series of BBC adaptations of Sarah Waters. Yet because Anne Lister inhabited a genteel 1820s Yorkshire, making her story inhabit a set of visual referents somewhere between Austen and the Brontes is about right; we know from literature and adaptations what the lives of gentlewomen in that world were supposed to be, and the sheer prettiness of the filming creates expectations which Maxine Peake’s delightful portrayal of Ann Lister constantly subverts.
The storyline carved out of millions of words of diary is simplified without being banal; Anne is looking for permanence and love, and is not prepared to settle for mere companionship and sexual compatibility with her friend Tib; the love of her life Marianne deserts her for marriage to a middle-aged man in the name of respectability; Anne consoles herself with another younger, richer heiress, Ann Walker, and they live happily, if not forever after. The truely delightful thing about this is that the comedy never quite becomes farce – Tib disgraces herself with drunken teasing that reveals both how much she feels and why Anne rejects her, and Anne moves in on the younger Ann Walker with a keen-eyed enquiry as to whether she has read the poems of Byron.
Perhaps most hilarious and most poignant of all is the way Marianne wants to have respectability and passion in her life, and gets neither. Anna Madeley is quite extraordinary in her charm and cruelty, combining beauty with a capacity to look like a small carnivore hunting its next meal; Michael Culkin is delightful as her middle-aged cuckold husband whose reaction to the storm of emotions he walks unknowing through is to eat the extra mutton chops his wife and her paramour leave untouched. In this, his pragmatism is surpassed only by Anne Lister’s – losing the love of her life enables her to find satisfaction. ‘Don’t tha marry for money’ says the farmer in Tennyson ‘ but go where money is.’
It will be interesting to see this again when the BBC show it.