‘Reading this scene was a particularly special moment for me’

Hope Norman reviews Learned by Heart, Emma Donoghue’s novel about Anne Lister’s time at York

(Image: Hope Norman)

Synopsis: In 1805, at the Manor School for Young Ladies in York, fourteen-year-old schoolgirl Eliza Raine keeps her head down and follows all the rules, until the arrival of a charismatic and fearless new student, Anne Lister. Soon, the two outsiders are thrown together and Eliza’s life is turned upside down by this remarkable young woman.

In my research on Anne Lister over the last couple of years, I have found that little agency has been given to her first love, Eliza Raine. Although this tale is a fictionalised account of their adolescent affair, Donoghue shines a light on the extraordinary (not to mention utterly heartbreaking) history of this incredibly brave individual. Eliza is her own person in this story, not merely just another of Lister’s lovers. She is a girl who, against all odds, takes the courage to embark on a sexual adventure with a member of the same sex. Their love is naïve, yet nevertheless incredibly real and innocent, albeit taboo. The two girls engage in amorous bliss to the extent they feel that sexual intercourse is their own sweet invention.

Indeed, Donoghue’s portrayal of Lister cannot go unnoticed; she masterfully reanimates Lister, living inside the pages of her own five-million word diaries, a clear indication of the meticulous research that has gone into this narrative. 

Another personal pleasure of mine was the setting of York. The University of York’s King’s Manor is in the centre of town. A perhaps lesser known fact of the Manor is that engraved in the Huntington Room’s windows lies graffiti that dates back to potentially earlier than the 19th Century. One of these engravings, which reads “with this diamond I cut this glass, with this face I kiss a lass,” is rumoured to have been Lister’s own hand. Reading this scene within the pages of the novel and then eventually locating it in the four walls of the Manor was a particularly special moment for me. To have the pleasure of wandering in these two individual’s footsteps is quite the honour. 

Learned by Heart is a beautifully gut-wrenching depiction of what it means to have loved and lost for the first time, to have had everything and then to be left with the lunacy-inducing heartbreak that is unrequited love. If you fancy a big ol’ cry, read this; you never know, you may just fall into the Anne Lister rabbit-hole like I did 2 years ago.