I can think of quite a few films that deal with the subject of leading a secret homosexual life, but not so many that deal with the problems facing lesbians. BBC’s The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister is based on a real life woman (1791-1840), a young Yorkshire woman living with her uncle and aunt at Shibden Hall when the film begins. Anne (Maxine Peake) is often in the company of lovers and friends Mariana (Anna Madeley) and Isabella ‘Tib” (Susan Lynch) and the three young women enjoy a great deal of freedom in each other’s company. This all comes to a screeching halt when Mariana is married off to elderly widower Charles Lawton (Michael Culkin). Up to this point, Mr Lawton’s presence, and his obvious hunt for the next Mrs Lawton, have provided the raw material for jokes.
Anne is heart broken and begs her lover Mariana to call off the marriage, but Mariana, who clearly knows what society expects of her, refuses. Anne wears black to the wedding, and afterwards tries to move on to a new love. Tib tries to console Anne, but the spark isn’t there.
Years pass and a few communications pass between Anne and Mariana. They swear a solemn vow to be true to each other, and Mariana assures Anne that her elderly husband is inching, daily, towards the grave. Meanwhile Anne, capable of great sexual passion, records her loneliness in coded diaries. She longs to share her life with the woman she loves and seeing Mariana under various pretenses just isn’t enough.
Set against the beautiful countryside of Anne’s home, we see how Anne progresses through her life. While Mariana calls Anne, “Freddy,” she also has the nickname of “Gentleman Jack,” and after Anne refuses to marry a local landowner, his spite makes sure that the rumours spread.
Anne, Tib and Mariana are allowed quite a bit of freedom, which included sharing beds with one another. But all this was approved of in the context that these young ladies were doing exactly what society expected them to do–and that included taking the husbands arranged for them and ‘doing their duty.’ (Sex and children). There are clues that some people were quite aware of Anne’s sexual orientation, but either chose to ignore it or else they imagined that it would pass once she found a suitable husband.
It’s interesting to note that no-one is suspicious of the sexual orientation of Anne’s aunt and uncle. The uncle is a substantial landowner, but there’s no mention of a wife, and of course the sister acts as a housekeeper. But they are passed the age of sexual queries. They may both be gay for all we know, but it no longer seems to matter to society. Also of note in that while the mingling of the single sexes was monitored and scrutinized by polite society, two or three girls alone together was …. well no big deal until one of them refused to marry a suitable husband.
As the film, which cut out some of the most interesting parts of Anne’s life, continues, we see Anne become increasingly masculine in dress and behaviour. There’s one scene when her hair has been curled and it looks god-awful, yet still the femininity garners compliments.
A lot more could have been done with the subject matter, but it’s well casted, well acted and pretty to look at. Sally Wainwright’s Gentleman Jack is currently posted preproduction on IMDB
Director James Kent
Writer Jane English