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Learned by Heart by Emma Donoghue

06/09/2023
Learned by Heart by Emma Donoghue

Irish author Emma Donoghue is probably best known for her 2010 novel turned film Room. But as the lengthy and fascinating author’s note to Learned by Heart reveals, Donoghue has been interested in the character of Ann Lister for much longer than that. In fact her first published book in 1993 Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668-1801 was an attempt to understand the influences on Lister and her first play from the same year I Know My Own Heart was about Lister in her 20s. If readers know of Ann Lister it is likely through from the BBC series about her – Gentleman Jack. The idea for this particular novel, Learned by Heart, came in 1998 when Donoghue found herself staying the garret that Lister lived in as a schoolgirl and so as she observes has been “two and a half decades in the making”. And her passion for and fascination with her subject shows.

But the focus of Learned by Heart is not Lister herself but rather her first, teenage lover, a woman called Eliza Raine. Eliza was the daughter of an East India Company official and an Indian woman. Sent to England as a child and with a substantial inheritance, Eliza and her sister have been sent to the Manor School for Young Ladies in York. The book opens in 1805, Eliza, now 14 has been banished to a small garret room and faces discrimination from her classmates and school generally for her dark skin and her origins. Into this world drops the unconventional and startlingly intelligent Ann Lister. Lister becomes Raine’s roommate and soon the two find themselves in an intense teenage relationship. The main action takes place over a single year, but the story is framed by letters written by Raine many years later, full of melancholy as she reflects on what happened in the years after.

Donoghue has thousands of pages of Lister’s diaries to draw from so is able to create a complex and believable character, intriguing but with plenty of flaws, thrown into relief given her young age. Using Eliza as the focus though, Donoghue is able to explore a fascination with Lister – looking at her from the outside and considering how she impacts on others. Because Eliza is not the only one caught up in Lister’s wake, either at school or later.

Learned by Heart is beautifully observed, achingly written, intense tale of non-conformists coming up against an entrenched system who believe they have discovered something that no one else knows about. It is clearly a passion piece from Donoghue but it is one into which she has combined her academic and literary skills to great effect.

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Learned by Heart by Emma Donoghue

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Learned by Heart by Emma Donoghue

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