Great LezBritain: Interview with Jane English

“Great LezBritian” is a fortnightly stroll through the very best of British lesbo-centric entertainment and culture. Plus there will be some jolly good interviews with the top ladies who are waving the flag for gay UK.

This week the BBC confirmed to us that they will screen Oxford Film & Television’s The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister on BBC Two on May 31, which is indeed super news. 

After watching the film at its premiere, we were entirely bowled over by it and so went to meet its writer Jane English (who also wrote several episodes of Channel 4’s brilliant Sugar Rush).

Over a pot of tea at King’s Cross Station, she told us that she spent 12 months poring over Anne’s diaries, which she kept sprawled over her kitchen table. This process gave her an unmistakable passion for Anne’s remarkable life and also a voice to answer her writer’s block whenever she had one.

Although it is bewildering that such an intrepid and inspiring woman could have remained largely unknown, we hope that this film will be witnessed by an audience en masse so as to introduce all and sundry to the wonderful world of Miss Lister.

Jane English It was lovely to meet you at the premiere, how did you feel on the night?
Jane English: I was so nervous beforehand and it felt quite a relief to see the finished film as I had only seen a work in progress. It was nice to watch it with such an appreciative audience and to get the laughs in the right places and such a positive reaction at the end — it was a lovely feeling.

AE: How did you get involved the project?
JE: Oxford Film and Television came up with the idea of doing the drama and a documentary too and I just got an email one day with this taster material — a brief biography of this woman Anne Lister and some extracts from her diary.  I was reading the text, thinking “Why have I not heard of this woman?” I couldn’t believe it! I went for an interview with Oxford and got the job.

AE: Like you, a lot of people had probably not heard of Anne Lister before, and you are now bringing her to a wide audience – that must be quite a satisfying feeling?
JE: She is probably only well-known in academia if you take Women’s Studies or Lesbian and Gay Studies but certainly not outside. So, yes, I love the thought that we are bringing this incredible woman to light whose life story turns all that we thought we knew about women during this period on its head.

AE: How would you describe her character to people that are not familiar with Anne?
JE: I think her character was such that she couldn’t be anything but herself. She was ever-curious, ever-searching, bold, intelligent and determined. She seized life with both hands and lived everyday to its full and got very annoyed with herself if she felt she was wasting time. She just got on with it, which I think is a brilliant lesson for women. 

AE: One of the things that struck me from about the film is how guilt-free Anne Lister is about her sexuality and for the time that seems very unusual?
JE: Well she writes her diaries with such frankness, which would even be astonishing today. You’re right, there is no angst from her — ‘Why do I like women?’ There is none of that, it is just I am like this, it is my God-given nature and so it is my duty to live like this and, by God, did she. [Both laugh]

For two months I was just reading her diaries and they were absolute page turners. I wanted to know what would happen with all the affairs she was having — and her frankness about her sex life just adds to the interest of reading them. [Both laugh]

AE: How did you decide upon the start point of the film, when there was so much from the diaries that you could have extracted?
JE: It was incredibly difficult because she lead such an eventful life and she was such a multi-faceted character that I really believe it could have been a 10-part returning drama series.

AE: Would you have liked that?
It would have been great as I could have gone in to so much more detail, but the passages that really leapt out at me as having the strongest, most emotional story were the ones with Mariana.

Some of the incidents with Mariana are so vivid, for example, when they meet in a Manchester hotel — two women meeting in a hotel basically to have sex in the period of Jane Austen is wow! That’s just incredible and had to be in the film and the later incident when Anne rushes across the moors to intercept Mariana’s carriage is so cinematic.

I think Anne saw Mariana as her soul-mate but it was never going to happen. I have had to paraphrase a lot of what happened but ultimately the relationship was driving her crazy and there was so many things she wanted to do with her life that she had to give her up.  She needed a relationship that kept her more on an even keel, which is what she got with Ann Walker but I do think it was quite tragic that Anne and Mariana could never get it together.