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Learned by Heart


Learned by Heart

As Emma Donoghue explains in her author’s note at the end of LEARNED BY HEART, Anne Lister --- thanks in large part to her five-million-word secret journal, partly written in code --- has been for many years the subject of research and writing on the history of gender and sexuality in the early 19th century. Donoghue’s partner has written academic essays about Lister, and Donoghue herself has been fascinated by the life of this icon of lesbian history.

But, as Donoghue observes, little has been written about the woman who was one of Lister’s first romantic partners, back in 1805 when the two were teenagers at the same girls’ school in York. What makes Eliza Raine’s life difficult to study from a historian’s perspective makes her an ideal subject for a novelist like Donoghue, who is able to use her imaginative powers to fill in the gaps in what is known of Raine’s life and her love affair with Lister.

"[LEARNED BY HEART is] a tender romance, an affecting account of two young people finding joy in one another until society’s dictates start to catch up with them."

Raine’s story is made even more complicated by issues of race and class. Donoghue provides evidence that Raine, who was born in India and moved to England when she was young, was the child of an Indian mother and an English father, part of the East India Company. Raine, who is orphaned by the time she enters the Manor School for young ladies, is set to inherit a large sum of money once she turns 21 or when she marries, whichever happens first.

Donoghue depicts the Manor School as a place where close female friendships, jealousies about shifting affections, and gossip all run rampant. Raine is at first dismayed when Lister --- an autodidact who largely has been ignored as a younger daughter in a large and not particularly well-to-do family --- is assigned to share her small attic bedroom. But Raine, like her classmates, is soon won over by Lister’s wit and intellect, not to mention her utter fearlessness and willingness to flout authority. Over the course of months, they become ever closer, until they embark on a sexual relationship that they find fulfilling but also could spell grave danger if it was discovered.

LEARNED BY HEART unfolds in alternating sections, with one narrative strand tracing Raine and Lister’s acquaintance, friendship and eventual love, while the other consists of a series of letters from an adult Raine to an absent Lister, written while Raine was an inmate at a mental asylum and exhibiting varying levels of psychosis. The reasons for Raine’s institutionalization are not entirely clear to the reader until and unless they read Donoghue’s author’s note, which provides significant additional historical context, but they are no less emotionally powerful for that.

What emerges from Raine and Lister’s story is a tender romance, an affecting account of two young people finding joy in one another until society’s dictates start to catch up with them.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on August 25, 2023

Learned by Heart
by Emma Donoghue