This weekend, BBC2 will screen The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, starring Maxine Peake in the title role.
Based on the heavily coded diaries of Lister, which were not deciphered until the 1930s, nearly a century after her death, the drama tells the story of her life as an openly lesbian, 19th-century industrialist and Yorkshire landowner. A formidable businesswoman, Lister inherited a 15th-century manor house from her uncle and oversaw considerable development of the place while maintaining and running a profitable coal-mining business on the side. Lister was the first woman elected to the Halifax Literary and Philosophy Society and was known locally as “Gentleman Jack”. She dressed all in black at a time when such a colour was reserved only for mourning.
Lister and her life partner, Anne Walker, exchanged rings in one of the first recorded same-sex ‘marriage’ ceremonies. The two women shared Lister’s home at Shibden Hall and altered their respective wills in order that they should both have a right to each other’s property, despite Lister’s relatives strongly disapproving of the whole situation.
In a diary entry from 1820, Lister wrote: “I love and only love the fairer sex and thus beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any love but theirs.”
Speaking about her role, Peake said: “Anne Lister was an extraordinary woman who up to recently has only really been documented in lesbian history. Hopefully with this film she will reach a wider audience.”