Based on a true life story this is a turbulent, gripping novel of an unexpected relationship. The author, Emma Donoghue is an Irish-Canadian playwright, literary historian, novelist, and screenwriter. Her 2010 novel Room was a finalist for the Booker Prize and an international best-seller. Donoghue’s 1995 novel Hood won the Stonewall Book Award and Slammerkin 2000) won the Ferro-Grumley Award for Lesbian Fiction.She is a 2011 recipient of the Alex Awards. At times, LEARNED BY HEART is sad, at other times it is hot and spicy. It jumps in time between 1805 and 1815.

The novel  opens with a line consciously reflecting Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca . “Last night I went to the Manor again,” Eliza Raine writes to Anne Lister .. Donoghue describes the startling, affecting story of the love of two women in the late Georgian/ Regency England – Anne Lister, the real-life inspiration behind Gentleman Jack, and her first love, Eliza Raine.

Orphaned and banished from Madras to England at the age of six with her sister Jane, daughter of an Indian woman and an East India Company employee who lived together in what was called  a “country marriage” (aka ‘a left handed marriage’ ), biracial Eliza Raine (1791- 1860) is bitterly conscious of how her brown skin and illegitimacy distinguish her from her more advantaged classmates, even though her father’s death has left her heir to a moderate fortune, controlled by a guardian. She tries to keep herself apart from the other girls where possible, exasperated at being snobbishly regarded and treated as ‘different’. Until Lister arrives she strives to fit in and be an exemplary student.

Completely different is independent, provocative, Anne Lister (1791- 1840) who disdains the rigid rules of The Manor. She refuses to accept society’s expectations of what a woman should be and how they should dress and behave. She both perturbs and intrigues the quieter, shyer Raine, treating the teachers with irreverence and demanding they call each other by their surnames as was common in boys schools. Raine comes to savor the audacious character of Lister and their relationship deepens and becomes intensely, passionately physical.

The two are vividly brought to life as they struggle to survive living at The Manor, pledge undying love, marry each other secretly and promise to live together when they reach adulthood – but nothing works out as planned. Donoghue bases her book on extensive research, using real diaries and letters, uncloaking the lives of two women whose circumstances changed beyond belief. Money and society, colour and background made them seem utterly discrepant, but they loved each other fiercely. 

Boarding school life is described in abundant detail, with the convoluted lives of teenage girls developing into women trying to fit into society’s expectations and appropriate echelons. Various classes are described (eg music, dancing, English. French) and the way every week there is ‘judgement and consequences’ where the girl’s behaviour – good or bad – is analysed and praised or punished, and church on Sundays . There is also a special visit to the theatre, once they have studied As You Like It and Raine and Lister sneak out and observe the Assembly Ball – but get caught.

The Manor, the school they are forced to endure life in in York, is reminiscent of Lowood in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, with its coldness, austerity and enforced stifling rules. Eliza Raine and Anne Lister are quite different in temperament, class and colour but in the same class at school (here called ‘The Middles ‘ for fourteen and fifteen year olds) and become a secret lesbian pair.They end up sharing a small garret room which they call The Slope. 

It is mostly written from Eliza Raine’s point of view and includes letters that she wrote to Anne Lister. Life at The Manor is described as well, and how the girls were consciously kept innocent of outside life and trained to catch a husband and marry and have children. But events (eg Valentine’s Day)and politics (eg the turbulent Regency and especially Napoleon’s exploits) change circumstances a bit and the girls are affected and aware of the milestones.

The love between Raine and Lister is elucidated in chapters written in the third person, interwoven with Raine’s distressed, at times rambling, letters to Lister in 1815 where it emerges that Raine has been incarcerated in an asylum. Only at the end is it established how and why, but in the Manor based chapters we learn how Raine’s burgeoning sense of self worth is blended with her love for Lister and perhaps might not withstand their unexpected, enforced parting. 

They both grow older. While Lister augmented her assembly of lovers and contacts, Raine’s life went a different way, completely shattered. We ponder- What function did Lister play in Raine’s life? How did Raine cope (or did she?) after Lister’s death?

At the back of the book in the Author’s Note, Donoghue considers the real life story of Raine and Lister and the amazing research she did. 

Eloquent, fascinating and fervent at times, full of splendidly researched detail, this is a powerful, gripping book.







One comment

  1. The book “Learned by Heart” by Emma Donoghue completely engrossed me and was highly compelling and emotionally packed. Writing by Donoghue is evidence of her skill as a storyteller since she spins a tumultuous tale that touches readers’ hearts. For readers looking for a moving and thought-provoking story, I heartily suggest this book because it chronicles a path of resiliency and human connection.

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