Emma Donoghue’s historical novel based on a real-life lesbian love affair from Victorian England is as forensic as it is intimate.
This 300-page historical novel fictionalising the love affair between two teenaged girls from Victorian England—the diarist Anne Lister (1791-1840) and her fellow pupil at the residential Manor School of York, Eliza Raine (1791-1860)—extends way beyond its frame, with backstories and later developments that can be interesting novels themselves. But Emma Donoghue’s book is a gem in its own right—precise, intense, deep. With equal attention paid to history and psychology, the novel is so immersive that it has to be finished at one go.
Learned By Heart
Known for her women-centred writing, the Irish-Canadian novelist and literary historian can explore seemingly sensational topics like sexual violence (in her bestselling novel, The Room) or adulterous and same-sex love (Life Mask, The Sealed Letter) without descending into the sentimental or the seedy. Learned By Heart has an added facet because one of the two main characters is a “coloured” woman—Eliza Raine is an Anglo-Indian, with an English father, who was a surgeon in the East India Company, and an Indian mother. She is transported from Madras to England at the age of six, and by 14, when she joins the elite Manor School in 1805 to become trained for society, she is an orphan heiress, kept at a distance because of her lineage but also protected by her inheritance.
With children of mixed blood sneered at in Victorian England, Eliza constantly walks on eggshells, acutely aware of disapproving eyes and over-compensating for the feeling of inadequacy by strictly following all the rules of the boarding school, in an effort to fit in. But, in Learned By Heart, she is no victim.Rather, she is at the heart of the narrative, making us look at England through her eyes: “When I came here, it seemed more strange than plain to me.” Practical and unprejudiced, she remains grounded even when wildly in love—a fact which gains significance in the light of the fact that the real Eliza Raine was committed to an asylum in 1814, when she was only 23.
Spectre of madness
Madness is a spectre that haunts all women, even the most hidebound, in the novel. In a society that gains its validity by nullifying female agency, the tiniest expression of individuality can get a woman institutionalised. And it is in this context that the very existence of Anne Lister, who had a string of relationships with women and lived openly with one of them, travelled widely on her own, and was a landowner actively engaged in making improvements to her property, seems almost unbelievable. Yet Lister (she preferred to be addressed by her surname, like a man), now regarded as the “first modern lesbian”, did live, and that too in style. Always dressed in black, Lister reportedly had a masculine appearance, which, added to her unladylike deportment, made her the talk of the town.
She was self-assured enough to chronicle her life minutely in her journals, which document her many “manly” preoccupations like interactions with tenants; involvement in legal issues related to Shibden Hall (an expansive property in Halifax, West Yorkshire, going back to Tudor times that she inherited from her uncle), animal husbandry, and property management; reflections on industrialisation, geology, and anatomy; detailed accounts of places she encountered in her travels; and mountaineering (she summited two of the highest peaks in the Pyrenees).
With her kind of intelligence and learning, Lister probably would have been famous much earlier had she been male. Given the great British fondness for diarists like Samuel Pepys (1633-1703), it is somewhat odd that scholarly books on Lister’s diaries started coming out only in the 1990s. She became a popular icon as recently as in 2019, with the Sally Wainwright-directed BBC/ HBO series, Gentleman Jack, which was the name by which Lister was known in her locality.
“The spotlight of the novel is not so much on the love affair as on the status of women in Victorian England, brought out through life in Manor School, where ladies are “made”.”
Although Learned By Heart can be seen as taking off from this newfound celebrity of Lister, it actually begins and ends before Lister had begun her journals. Her earliest known entry is from August 11, 1806, and it says poignantly, “Eliza left us.” It was heartbreak occasioned by the temporary departure of her first love, Eliza, that launched Lister into journaling. In that sense, Eliza is the “creator” of the Lister we know today, the Lister of the remarkable journals. But very little is known about Eliza apart from the bullet points of her biography. Donoghue’s novel gives her agency, as she speaks directly to us through her fictional letters to Lister.
The intuitive Eliza understands that if Lister, with her knowledge of science, history, and Latin, is impressive, she can also be boastful, pushy, and self-important. The real Lister seems to have been a contrary, restless person, who had a number of affairs after Eliza—which may have precipitated Eliza’s eventual mental breakdown. In Learned By Heart, Eliza adores her Lister but is also aware that this passionate adolescent affair might just be a role-playing, made doubly unreal by the fact that it is between two women.
- With equal attention paid to history and psychology, Emma Donoghue’s latest novel is so immersive that it has to be finished at one go.
- One of the two main characters in this historical novel fictionalising the love affair between two teenaged girls from Victorian England is an Anglo-Indian girl, Eliza Raine.
- The other main character is the English diarist, Anne Lister, now known as as the “first modern lesbian”, whose life was dramatised in the BBC/ HBO series, Gentleman Jack.
- The focus of the novel is not so much their love affair as the status of women in Victorian England. Many women round the world are still under the same patriarchal restrictions.
Women in shackles
Indeed, the spotlight of the novel is not so much on the love affair as on the status of women in Victorian England, brought out through life in Manor School, where ladies are “made”. The rules of school life—girls must wear front curls underneath their bonnet, learn by rote, cannot open windows or lean out of them, talk loudly, talk back, overeat, express anger—are maddening and yet they define the norm. Any deviation is met with punishment and public humiliation. Eliza, with the damning “brush of tar” in her blood, is ghettoised in a room in the school attic, where she is soon joined by Lister, who though white, is too deviant to be included among the “proper” set. In that cramped space with sloping roofs, they find a universe of freedom once they fall in love.
Most of their fellow pupils are not so lucky. A young student dies at school before her life has barely begun; one is taken out mid-session to be married off; another is rusticated for getting pregnant. Here one recalls the heroines of the Brontës, who bite, shriek, and rave as they refuse to fit into the shape of docile, rule-abiding “good women”, which society has earmarked for them. (The Brontës probably knew Lister, whose scandalous lifestyle made ripples in their native Yorkshire. Critics have speculated that the moneyed and feisty Shirley of Charlotte Brontë’s eponymous novel is based on Lister.)
“Even the India of Eliza’s memory is a rounded construction, with a surprising reference to Tipu Sultan’s rockets, which nobody in England had heard of at that time, contrary to claims of British technological superiority.”
A woman like Catherine Earnshaw (Wuthering Heights) can hope to gain some freedom by marrying into money, but even then, she ends up dead at childbirth, which was the inevitable fate of married women. Eliza sighs on reading a plaque for a wife that says, “Think what a woman should be and she was that.” “It fills Eliza with gloom to think that the best the Manor girls can hope for is to be described in such terms someday—the pristine blankness of a good woman’s life.”
The usual destination for women like Lister was the madhouse. She probably skirted that eventuality by inheriting Shibden Hall, which gave her money and class. Eliza could not get away. In an ominous foreshadowing, the school children go pass Clifton House Asylum, where Eliza will later be shut in, during their walks, and wave at the “madwomen” in “white caps just like the Manor girls”. The girls discuss that the patients’ altered facial features might be the result of losing their teeth (it was commonly believed that tooth sensitivity was caused by overthinking—Virginia Woolf went through painful extractions on the advice of doctors, who wanted to “root out” the “nerves” this way), at which Lister observes dryly that the only difference between the insane women and the boarded up schoolgirls is that the latter still have their teeth. With such meaningful and realistic conversations among the schoolgirls added to Eliza’s silent observations, which open up her wounded heart to us, Learned by Heart is at once forensic and intimate.
Donoghue also pays loving attention to minor characters and events—the pompous Manor School headmistress with her professed liberal views; the ageing, bewigged Miss Lewin who might have a lover in her live-in partner, Miss Morrice (suggesting that same-sex relationships probably existed without being named as such); the young and pretty Miss Robinson, who gets all the flowers from the junior students and the sneers of her jealous colleagues. Even the India of Eliza’s memory is a rounded construction, with a surprising reference to Tipu Sultan’s rockets, which nobody in England had heard of at that time, contrary to claims of British technological superiority.
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Last but not least, Learned By Heart can serve as a lesson in writing good sex—the episodes of lovemaking between Eliza and Lister in the attic bring out the urgency and intensity of their desire, adding to the worth of their relationship, so that the break-up, when it comes, seems all the more painful. I could not help but compare these beautifully written scenes to a much-acclaimed recent film also centred on a lesbian relationship, Ammonite, where the sex episodes seemed as jaded as the lovers.