September 2023

Learned by Heart

By Emma Donoghue
Review by
A masterful storyteller, Emma Donoghue brings her dazzling talent and imagination to this historical novel based on a true story of risk, love and two young women discovering themselves by way of each other.
Share this Article:

With novels like The Wonder, The Pull of the Stars and Haven, Emma Donoghue has proven herself a masterful storyteller of historical worlds populated with deeply imagined characters. Though the universes she creates seem like they could expand infinitely, she builds small, confined spaces at the center from which grow rich possibilities. This is all especially true of her latest biographical novel, Learned by Heart, a story of risk, love and two young women discovering themselves by way of each other.

In 19th-century York, England, Eliza Raine is an orphan heiress living at an all-girls boarding school. When Anne Lister becomes her roommate, Eliza’s world shifts—and along with it, her understanding of herself and who she might become. The story moves between the year they meet at school and a series of letters that Eliza writes to Anne some years later. In these shifts, the reader witnesses the ways that the past shapes and haunts the present, that stories are made and unmade, and that love surprises and overwhelms.

The language here—of deep friendship and longing, text and subtext—is captivating. Sentences sing, and details shine. Donoghue has a remarkable ability to hold you in a moment, allowing you to see as a character does, knowing the questions each breath contains. Throughout, she keeps the narrative intimate while still allowing for commentary on wider considerations of societal constraints and expectations.

After reading this wonderful story with its countless discoveries, perhaps the greatest surprise of all is in the author’s note, in which Donoghue shares how she meticulously researched and reimagined this true tale. While Anne Lister’s story has been brought into our contemporary awareness, most recently through the HBO series “Gentleman Jack,” Eliza Raine’s story—and their story together—has not. Donoghue investigated their personal histories for years, focusing on Lister’s secret journal and Raine’s letters (the ones she was able to find). This rich saga gets its bold and dazzling moment at last.

Trending Reviews

Even as it probes the author’s own family legacy, Undiscovered reminds readers of the importance of confronting the white-savior myths that form the basis of so much of what we call “history.”

Get the Book

Learned by Heart

Learned by Heart

By Emma Donoghue
Little, Brown
ISBN 9780316564434

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our newsletter to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres every Tuesday.