Though Emma Donoghue is best known for her contemporary novel Room, I follow her primarily for her superb historical fiction. Slammerkin (2000), The Sealed Letter (2008), Frog Music (2014), and The Wonder (2106) are each quite different in topic and tone, yet all are fierce, brilliantly crafted novels that make marvelous fiction out of a solid grounding in historical fact.

This time around, Donoghue bases an extraordinary novel on a mystery in the life of British landowner and diarist Anne Lister. You might not think that there are many mysteries left in Lister's life now that a significant group of excerpts from her five million (yep, that's million)-word journal, written partially in code, is available in well-done published editions. You might also doubt that there's much creative gold left in Lister's life now that she's been the subject of one film, one television series, two biographies and myriad other works. Happily—though not all that surprisingly, given Donoghue's talent—you would be wrong.

Learned by Heart focuses primarily not on Lister herself but on Eliza Raine, the first of Lister's lovers. In 1805, the two met as teenagers in their Yorkshire boarding school; their relationship turned passionate before Lister departed the school in summer 1806. Raine, the daughter of an English father and a never-identified Indian mother, believed the two would be partners for life. Unfortunately, she was not the last of Lister's paramours to discover that Anne's heart was more passionate than predictable. Following the demise of their relationship, Raine's mental health deteriorated significantly enough to lead to her confinement in a small private asylum in 1814. It's impossible to retroactively diagnose her mental illness, if indeed she had one for some or all of her remaining 46 years; though it appears that she may have suffered from from some form of psychosis, there's no doubt that the combination of her taboo sexual desires and mixed race also led to her volatility being interpreted more harshly than they might have been for a racially "pure" and heterosexual young woman.

Learned by Heart is structured in two interwoven threads. One traces the relationship between Raine and Lister; the other consists of letters written from Raine to her former lover from the asylum in which she is confined. The juxtaposition works beautifully. The more straightforward and literal narrative grounds readers. The letters, unreliable as they may (or may not) be, give the novel much of its poignancy, mystery and depth. Donoghue brings both women vividly and sympathetically to life; she does an equally excellent job evoking the settings and society in which they lived their equally, if differently, complex lives.

In an Author's Note at the end of book, Donoghue speaks of becoming fascinated by Raine's story when she and her partner—a noted Lister scholar—spent time in the same building where Raine and Lister shared a room as schoolgirls. She wrote the first notes on what would become this novel in 1998, giving it an gestation period of some 25 years. Some books might grow stale or overwritten in a working timeframe that lengthy. Happily, Learned by Heart is not one of them.

Find out more about the author and the book on Donoghue's website. Emma Donoghue's Learned By Heart can be purchased on Bookshop, Amazon U.S., and Amazon U.K. 

Letter from Anne Lister to Eliza Raine,
courtesy of West Yorkshire Archive Service

Page from Anne Lister's coded diary,
courtesy of