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    Saturday, September 30, 2023

    Emma Donoghue serves up more fearless historical fiction

    Emma Donoghue is among the most fearless contemporary novelists we have: an immensely talented writer who is a great storyteller and, based on her extensive body of work, unafraid of subjects that give her less-courageous peers pause. She is best known for “Room,” a daring novel about a young mother’s desperate attempt to help her 5-year-old son escape the shed in which she and the boy are held captive. The tale is narrated by the child, a narrative decision that was brilliant and brave. I stayed awake reading it on a night flight from Paris to Beirut, unwilling to put the book down and sleep.

    But she has also written outstanding historical fiction, such as “The Wonder,” “The Pull of the Stars,” and “Slammerkin,” which is both a terrific book and a fabulous word. (Look it up. You’ll thank me.)

    Her latest, “Learned by Heart,” is a fascinating story set at an English girls school in 1805 and — wait for it — what we once called an insane asylum in 1815. It has characters with complex internal lives, insights into the human soul, and a wrenching love story that’s both queer and multiracial.

    But let’s begin at the end (minus spoilers). “Learned by Heart” concludes with a 15-page author’s note. Donoghue always does her homework, and her new book is no exception. It was inspired by the 5 million-word diary that an Englishwoman named Anne Lister kept throughout the 19th century. Donoghue first became aware of the journals when she read decoded excerpts from it in Helena Whitbread’s 1988 exploration of Lister’s life, “I Know My Own Heart.”

    Why were parts of the journals written in code? Because Anne Lister was smart, funny, courageous and gay — with lots of lovers — and because Brits 200 years ago had the same view of the LGBTQ+ community that Ron DeSantis has now (at least based on a notorious ad shared by his campaign this summer). Lister was the inspiration for the BBC/HBO series “Gentleman Jack,” two words that appear in a sly aside toward the end of Donoghue’s new book.

    Perhaps because so much already has been written about Lister, Donoghue chose instead to bring us inside the mind of Eliza Raine, Lister’s likely first love. Raine is 14 and Lister 15 when they meet as roommates at the Manor School for girls in York in 1805.

    They are both social misfits. Raine, though wealthy, is a “bastard” from Madras, the child of a British surgeon with the East India Company and an Indian mother. “My sister and I see no colour,” the headmistress of the school tells Raine’s guardian, and then promptly gives her a sloping room with no roommate on “an attic floor occupied only by servants, luggage, and broken furniture.” Meanwhile, “the well-mannered call her ... foreign-looking or tawny; the insolent, swarthy, dusky, dingy, or plain brown.”

    Early into the school year, a new student arrives, Anne Lister, “upright as an officer” and with a confidence that transcends her newness: “I’m here for a quick polish, and new connections,” she tells the head of school, “so I can move up into the realm I was born to occupy.” She has already taught herself geometry, astronomy, heraldry, French and Latin, and has an uncanny ability to memorize lengthy book passages.

    Moreover, as if these girls were boys, she insists that she will call the other students by only their surnames and that she herself be addressed simply as Lister — and never Miss Lister. The new girl’s unladylike bravado ensures that she will be asked to board with the Brown girl.

    Quickly Raine falls under her spell, a beta to her new alpha friend. Even the other students, though they view Lister as eccentric, grow enamored of her.

    Much of the first half of the novel is a chaste exploration of boarding school politics among the students. Even in 1805, there were mean girls and cliques. Much of the second half, especially once Lister has informed Raine, “It would be against my nature (to marry a man),” is an increasingly frenetic love story between the two. Lister uses one of Raine’s diamonds to cut a Sapphic love poem into a glass window, they have a secret wedding — just the two of them — and they share a first kiss. Then they share a lot more than a first kiss, a reminder that teenagers in love 200 years ago were every bit as randy and reckless as teenagers today. “Since the diamond, since the kiss, what’s between them is a stone rolling down a hill,” Donoghue writes. The young women are insatiable.

    But interspersed between the lengthy third-person love story at the school are letters from Raine to Lister written a decade later. It becomes evident in some of the early ones that Raine’s jovial tone is masking longing and despair. Soon, we realize, she is writing from the very asylum the girls spied when they were students.

    And so much of what propels the second half of the story is dread: Why are the friends apart? Why are Raine’s letters increasingly angry and unhinged? Why is Lister, it seems, not responding?

    My one quibble with the novel (and it’s a small one) is that Donoghue shares a lot of her research into the routines of school life in the 19th century, and those rituals slow the tale. But this is a small objection. Donoghue offers what I am sure Lister herself would view as a ripping good spin on her remarkable story, while providing a window into how one woman, Anne Lister, would successfully flout her expected role in the 19th century, and another, Eliza Raine, would be left floundering.

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