Review: The Real Life of Anne Lister

The Real Anne Lister (or Revealing Anne Lister) is a historical documentary that analyzes the epic diary of a regency woman who became a great landowner with a hunger for status and wealth, as well as other things.

Narrated and led by Sue Perkins, the film purports to be an exposure of this historical and mysterous woman, of her secret lesbianism and how/why she was able to ‘get away with it’ in such a day and age. We’re presented with Regency experts, local historians who knew of Anne and her family, as well as curious historians who spent ages pouring through the diaries, caught up in the romance (they claim) and decoding the codified bits that related to Anne’s secret sexuality.

See, Anne Lister was a meticulous diarist when it came to the exploits and achievements of her life. She left FOUR MILLION WORDS about her personal history in about two dozen journals in the family archive of her home. While carefully codified with Ancient Greek and algebraic symbols, her code was eventually broken in the 19th century and her secret was finally out to the world.

While learning about a secret superstar lesbian in a puritanical time is interesting, what really makes this film memorable is the way in which Sue Perkins relates to Anne Lister. As a lesbian, a feminist and a liberal humanist, she judges Anne Lister for her preference in women, her pride and status and especially condemns Lister for an affair she has with a half-Indian-British girl when she was in school. Perkins cannot forgive Lister for engaging the girl in an affair, and then growing bored with her and instead pursuing people more in her upper-class social circles. Perkins is pissing mad that Anne, at 13, did not step up and defend her girlish love. Lesbian or not, most teenage romances are fleeting and nothing more, but because of her later history Perkins ascribes it with some form of deep meaning, when really it could have just been a first successful dalliance with the same sex. (With more to come.)

I believe Sue Perkins was looking for a role model in Anne Lister, as a successful lesbian pushing through and succeeding in a severely patriarchial and rules-based soiciety that restricted the opportunities given to women. Instead Perkins find that Lister was perfectly happy with the status quo, as long as she could subvert it to her own means. The film ends as Anne’s death does, abruptly, with a short explanation about why her diaries were hidden for so long. A really interesting and mostly tongue-in-cheek exploration of a historical figure who really turned the Regency prudism on it’s head.
I definitely recommend this film.

Viewed at The Inside Out Film FestivalFriday May 20th, 2011.

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