The world of early 19th century England is usually seen through the eyes of Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters. Sue Perkins explores a dramatically different version of this world, as lived and recorded by the remarkable Anne Lister.
Anne was born in Halifax in 1791. A Yorkshire landowner, she was a polymath, autodidact and traveller who kept a detailed diary. Running to more than 4,000,000 words, the work ranks as one of the most important journals in English literature. Parts of Anne’s epic diary were written in code: once deciphered they reveal graphic details of Anne’s many love affairs with women.
Sue visits Halifax’s public library to explore what Anne Lister’s life reveals about the society in which she lived. She meets Helena Whitbread, who spent 25 years cracking Anne’s code and who was responsible for the publication of the diaries in 1988. Helena tells Sue the moving and tragic story of Marianne Belcome, the love of Anne’s life.
At Anne’s ancestral home, Shibden Hall, Sue discovers that Regency England was surprisingly tolerant of Anne’s chosen lifestyle. Dr Margaret Reynolds and Prof Amanda Vickery tell Sue that relations between young women were tacitly encouraged as a useful preparation for marriage.
Sue discovers that Anne was able to follow her sexual preferences in relative peace. It was only when she sought to profit from the Industrial Revolution by sinking a coal mine on her land that criticism of her private life became public. Anne acquired the capital for the mine from a wealthy female landowner, Anne Walker, with whom she enjoyed a relationship as close to marriage as the times would permit.
Sue finds out that what happened to Anne Lister’s diaries after her death is almost as remarkable as the story of Anne’s life. (BBC 2)