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Learned by Heart

by Emma Donoghue

Emma Donoghue (Una Roulston)

Historical fiction often dwells in the gap between what happened and what was recorded. The best examples also explore the historical conditions for why that gap exists. Emma Donoghue’s latest novel, Learned by Heart, does just that. She takes the written traces of the relationship between Anne Lister (the notable 19th-century diarist and queer trailblazer, now of Gentleman Jack TV series fame) and Eliza Raine, young lovers in Georgian England, and considers how uniquely murky this gap can be when it comes to queer history.

Much of Learned by Heart is a well-researched depiction of what the year shared by the two teenage girls at a small British boarding school in York in 1805 might have been like. The narrative centres on Eliza, who is navigating two distinctly complicated inheritances from her dead parents: the dark skin of her Indian mother and thousands of pounds from her British father. Recently enrolled at the expensive boarding school after having to relocate from India, Eliza is forced to reckon with her dwindling family and racial identity, even as she contends with schoolroom dramas. Keenly aware of the illegitimacy of her birth in the eyes of her peers – who question her about tropical fruit, call her “foreign looking,” and mutter about her unearned status behind her back – Eliza decidedly keeps her head down. But she also commits to defying racist stereotypes: “it gives her a secret gratification to confound expectations.”

Anne Lister’s arrival marks a shift early in the novel. Where Eliza longs to fit in, Lister (who prefers the use of her surname) refuses to. Though she lacks an inheritance and casts off most social norms, she is nevertheless enchanting to both her peers and teachers. The outsider is brilliant, forthright, cocky, and candid, described as “a middle-aged man of business in the body of an adolescent female.” Lister takes the empty cot in Eliza’s bedroom and, swiftly, takes on the role of her best friend. Her charm and wit get her in and out of trouble constantly. Eliza regards her as a foil to the school, thinking “the system doesn’t work for geniuses.” Lister comes to represent an intelligence beyond the scope of education, a voracity that cannot be learned. Her arrival also marks a change in Eliza, who, spellbound, finds herself more critical of her surroundings, more aware of her own nature: “once you’ve found your mate, you can be all the more yourself.”

After an unexpected kiss, their relationship quickly becomes uninhibited and romantic. They begin fumbling around their bedroom (which they dub the “Slope”), kissing in the dark, sleeping together, “something like a dance of their own devising, something like a storm.” Donoghue’s rendering of their sticky romance is beautifully told. She captures how slippery and powerful first love is: their two characters start to blend and change as their mutual desire grows into a shared lexicon for being. At its most endearing, they have a secret wedding in the woods, after which they start making plans for their future, “build[ing] elaborate castles in the air.”

Having to conceal their relationship is not without consequences. From the opening pages, the reader knows that their happiness is short-lived. The first chapter is one of a handful of  increasingly manic (and seemingly unanswered) letters from Eliza to Lister (all dated 1815), that are interspersed throughout the novel. As the letters accrue, it is revealed that Eliza has been institutionalized. The first line of the novel mirrors that of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, an early hint that memory plays a treacherous and supernatural role in the book. Eliza writes obsessively of their time together: “in our Slope I passed my best hours, and sometimes I have to remind myself that they are indeed past.” The impossibility of their relationship gives shape to Eliza’s tragedy.

 Learned by Heart is the story of a love without narrative. With no framework for queerness, Eliza calls sex, “their beautiful nocturnal invention.” The impact of language is at the heart of the novel: words are written in code, phrases are memorized and translated, letters are burned or left unsent, meaning is twisted and damaged as soon as it lands on the page. In this way the novel suggests that the records and histories relating to queer people can necessarily be unreliable. Eliza and Lister subvert the documentation of their love, dodging their peers, teachers, and guardians. In a poignant scene, they read an innuendo-laced news article about the arrests of gay men: “‘Acts contrary to decency and good morals,’ Lister reads. ‘Might that not be said of us too?’” With the title of the novel, Donoghue asserts that queer love stories from this period were not told, nor accurately written, but instead, like Lister’s favourite Latin expressions, were learned by heart.

“In a sense, Learned by Heart is two and a half decades in the making,” writes Donoghue, in her author’s note, revealing it to be one of her most intensely researched novels. She began reading about Anne Lister in the mid-’90s after encountering some excerpts from Lister’s five-million-word diaries (parts of which were written in code) that have since been recognized as a UNESCO world heritage document. Not only has Donoghue immersed herself in biographical research of both Lister and Raine, including diaries and letters, but she has visited “the Slope” and seen the glass where Lister etched an epithet about their first kiss. The extent of the research is impressive, though at times it weighs down the narrative with unnecessary historical details, particularly in the first half of the novel. Nevertheless, Learned by Heart is a salient, passionate example of how historical fiction can expose and enrich histories that are otherwise obscured.


Reviewer: Emily Mernin

Publisher: Harper Avenue, HarperCollins Canada


Price: $32.99

Page Count: 336 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 978-1-44347-031-5

Released: Aug.

Issue Date: August 2023

Categories: Fiction: Novels, Reviews