Book Review: Learned by Heart by Emma Donoghue

August 18, 2023

“And I ask myself why the present tense is the only one that matters. Can’t the past be a sort of present too, if I plunge into memory and swim like a fish? Since every moment is fleeting, gone as soon as noted, so perhaps past, present, and future are all thin slices of reality, all flickering, all equally (in some sense) true.”

Learned by Heart by Emma Donoghue is a novel based on the real relationship between Eliza Raine, an orphaned heiress sent to England from India to live with strangers, and Anne Lister, an diarist who is known today for her five-million-word coded journals that frankly depict her romantic relationships with women.

The novel weaves two strands of Eliza and Anne’s story together—a third-person account of the year they first met as teenagers at boarding school, where they were roommates, friends, and eventually lovers, and an epistolary style ten years afterwards, when Anne has moved on to other relationships while Eliza remains in love.

Learned by Heart is compelling in every aspect of its writing, starting with its choice of protagonist. Donoghue tells this story from Eliza’s perspective—in third-person limited for the sections dedicated to her and Anne’s fledgling relationship, to the interspersed letters from Eliza in first person. It would’ve been the easier choice to make Anne the lens through which this story is told, given the wealth of information and her own diaries that remain; almost nothing remains about Eliza Raine. Eliza was half British and half Indian, reliant on her conservator and forced to live between worlds—unable to return to, or even remember India, but treated with both overt and implicit racism from strangers and family alike in her everyday life in England. To give her a voice, in the absence of a large historical record or a personal diary like Anne’s, is one of Learned by Heart’s biggest successes.

The form itself—an interwoven combination of third-person limited and epistolary – was perfect for its characters. The third-person limited established a rough ground truth of Eliza and Anne’s early relationship, whereas the letters allowed Eliza the space to be an unreliable narrator as the stability of her mental health vacillates. The two forms also reflect a key to Eliza’s character, which is that the past is equally, if not more, important than the present.

Learned by Heart’s other triumph is the way in which Donoghue captures queerness, and Eliza and Anne’s transition to lovers. For Eliza, it’s not just that being queer is taboo, but that it hasn’t even occurred to her—it’s something so unspoken that she can’t name or understand the feelings she has for Anne until Anne acts on them. One of the novel’s most moving passages comes after Eliza and Anne sleep together for the first time:

“And the nameless, perhaps unnameable betweens and unders and ups and deeps inside, parts Eliza is half convinced she didn’t have until Lister bared and brought them to life with a spark from her godlike finger.”

Eliza, in the book and in real life, loved Anne long after they ended their romantic relationship, and she was devastated when Anne moved on with other women. Donoghue’s writing captured the depth of that love, which she deftly intertwined with the creation of Eliza’s sense of self. Eliza seemed to love Anne in part because Anne gifted her the realization that she could have a life, an identity, and a love that wasn’t prescribed by a colonial and patriarchal society.

Learned by Heart is a brilliant novel, and one that’s especially resonant as the LGBTQ+ community is being increasingly attacked and endangered. Previous readers of Emma Donoghue will love this book, as well as fans of Madeline Miller, Hannah Kent, and Kiran Millwood Hargrave.

Publisher: Little, Brown and Company

Publication date: August 24, 2023

Reviewed by Lauren Finkle


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