Interview: The secret life of a woman ahead of her time

NINETEENTH-century Britain was not all parlour games and church visits as Jane Austen would have us believe.

A peep into the secret diaries of industrialist, landowner and traveller Anne Lister paints an entirely different picture of the times and of the role women played in society.

Now the diaries, which were originally written in code, are to be dramatised in BBC2's The Secret Diaries Of Miss Anne Lister to be screened on Bank Holiday Monday and filmed on location in Yorkshire.

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The complicated lead character, often acclaimed as Britain's first modern lesbian, is being played by Maxine Peake, of Shameless fame.

Maxine, who in preparation for her role, read the four million-word diaries in 27 volumes, says: "I was surprised at how modern they sounded, you think everything was so restrained.

"Obviously she was an exception and she lived her life by different rules to most people. But when you read about the social everyday existence, the parties and the drinking, you think, 'Wow it wasn't as stuffy as I always thought it was'. You see Austen and that's become our perception of that time now, based purely on one view of it."

Anne Lister eschewed the social norms of the time and, rather than settling down to marriage and housekeeping, pursued relationships with women, and enjoyed activities such as coal-mining and shooting. She even became the first woman to climb Mont Perdu in the Pyrenees.

She kept a detailed account of her life, loves and emotions in her fascinating and painfully honest journal. The diaries were published in 1992 by Helena Whitbread who spent six years deciphering them.

Highly educated, Lister's abilities were such that she inherited one of Calderdale's most glittering jewels, Shibden Hall in Halifax,

from her uncle who was impressed by her business acumen.

But being so ahead of her times came at a price. Anne Lister was hounded and referred to as "Gentleman Jack" by her Halifax neighbours, and the love of her life, Mariana Belcombe, left her for the financial – and social – security of marriage to a man.

The relationship between Lister and Belcombe is central to the television drama.

When Maxine, who is known for playing loud-mouthed Veronica in Shameless, and for her heart-wrenching performance as a victim of domestic violence in the drama Criminal Justice, found out they were making a drama about

Anne Lister's life, she

jumped at the chance to get involved.

"I heard about the role through a friend of mine. He knew nothing more about her apart from she was a traveller and an industrialist, and he said they were doing a drama of it up in Yorkshire," the Bolton-born actress explains.

"So I got onto my agent, I thought, 'That sounds brilliant, a strong female character'. It's so nice to hear of parts for women which aren't just about chasing men, shopping and eating lettuce."

Maxine learnt she had got the part while "sunning myself on holiday" and immediately launched herself into researching the role, ordering every book about her that she could find, and meeting up with historian and Anne Lister expert Helena Whitbread.

The actress was amazed that she hadn't heard of the landowner – known to some as "the first modern lesbian" – before.

"I did have a couple of lesbian friends who had heard of her through lesbian literature but I hadn't. It's weird that it's just been assigned to lesbian and gay literature and you think, 'Why is that?' It has got broad appeal, especially as I think we're lacking in positive female role models at the moment.

"If Anne Lister wanted to do something she just went and did it – she's truly inspirational," she says.

Maxine was conscious of the interest that would be generated by a straight actress playing a lesbian.

"I panicked about playing her at first," she admits.

"She is such an important figure and because she is very much part of the lesbian and gay culture and you want to do a good job, you're representing a group of people, so I wanted to get it right. I didn't want them to go, 'Oh no, I don't believe for a minute or that's not right'."

Luckily, director James Kent and Helena Whitbread were on hand to offer their support and encouragement ("I walked into the room and Helena said, 'Oh thank God, you're tall'.")

It might also have helped that Dean Lennox Kelly, who played Maxine's on-screen husband in Shameless, has a role in the drama.

"I was shocked when I heard who they had got on board," she says smiling.

"It obviously caught a lot of people's imaginations.

Kev and Veronica reunited!

It was great to work with Dean again, we haven't worked together since Shameless."

In fact, Peake claims that the lesbian love scenes were far easier for her to tackle than what she had to do on Shameless.

"I found the intimate scenes in the drama absolutely fine. In fact, girls are slightly cleaner than boys in a strange way, aren't they?" she giggles.

"Anna (Madeley, who plays Mariana] was brilliant and we just went for it. After Shameless I'm not particularly frightened of doing anything, really, so it was no problem at all."

She also loved roaming around the sweeping Yorkshire Moors, armed with an old-fashioned rifle and shotgun, during the 18 days of filming.

"It was cold and freezing being up north but it was beautiful being up on the Moors," she recalls.

"Anne was quite an active woman, so there was lots of mud. I remember being

dirty a lot, running down hills and over moors. It was fantastic, I just wish it had been longer."

Eventually Anne met and "married" Ann Walker, a neighbouring heiress. They lived at Shibden Hall together and enjoyed travelling the world.

She was at her partner's side when she died in 1840 after contracting a fever on a trip to the Caucasus mountains in Russia. Anne Lister died aged 59 and is buried at Halifax Parish Church.

A documentary has also been made to accompany the BBC drama with the help of West Yorkshire Archive Service and an exhibition including images of the original diaries, as well as decoded extracts, is touring Calderdale.

The Secret Diaries Of Miss Anne Lister is on BBC2 on Monday, May 31 at 9pm.