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  • Writer's pictureThe Bossy Bookworm

Review of Learned by Heart by Emma Donoghue

Donoghue's captivating historical fiction centers around two real-life young women in an early 1800s British boarding school who fall into a clandestine love and break each other's hearts.

Hypotheticals, impossibilities. The dreams of youth rarely come to pass, I remind myself. We were not the first young lovers to fail at love in the end.

Early in the story, Learned by Heart very much reminded me of A Little Princess. That was one of my favorite books when I was young, and within Learned by Heart, the concern with classism, money, and control, the living in the attic, the stern headmistress, and the links to India made me feel as though this was a grown-up version of the loose framework of Frances Hodgson Burnett's story.

But as Learned by Heart progresses, Donoghue builds a rich story around the real-life figures of Eliza Raine and Anne Lister.

Raine was a wealthy orphan--one of two daughters born to a white British father and an Indian mother, who were committed but unmarried--sent from India to England at age 6. She grew up in a cold, strict British boarding school in the early 1800s. Lister arrives as a wild, curious, unconventional, brilliant tomboy--and is paired as roommates with Raine in the drafty dormitory attic. It almost seems as though the school heads would like to forget either of the troublesome young ladies exist.

The teenage roommates become unlikely best friends, then fall into a deep, forbidden attraction, pledging their eternal love to each other. Their romantic connection is passionate but clandestine, and they manage to evade the scandal and punishment that would befall them if their situation were made known to the conservative school administrators--or if it were made plain to the other students, who are all vying to avoid formal reprimands and seem prone to sacrifice each other to the teachers' and headmistress' wrath.

When the two are separated by circumstances, Lister moves on to explore long-term romances with various of their mutual friends, breaking Raine's heart a little more each time.

The book is partially epistolary, and the letters involved are primarily written by Raine (who is in a mental institution) to Lister. Donoghue's Author's Note explains that while more of Raine's letters survived so that they inspire the correspondence in the book, Lister was in fact frequently writing back to her former love--but many of Raine's belongings were lost.

The unraveling of Raine's mental state on the page is striking--but she does have "lucid moments" and periods of calm. It's difficult to consider Raine's mental illness without crediting the likely powerful influence of her worries about her orphaned state, her cold relationship with her sister, her lack of autonomy as a female, her financial future's reliance on her age and marital state, and the secretive nature of her desire and single close relationship--which ends in heartbreak, followed by years of prolonged angst, yearning, and continual disappointment.

I received a prepublication edition of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Little, Brown and Company.

Do you have any Bossy thoughts about this book?

Emma Donoghue is also the author of Room, The Pull of the Stars (which I loooved; it was one of My Twelve Favorite Books of the Year when I read it), and other books.


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