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The Crack Magazine

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Learned By Heart by Emma Donoghue

Anne Lister, dubbed “the first modern lesbian” found fame long after her death (in 1840), when her extensive diary entries – many of which were written in code – were deciphered in the 20th century. They detail her life in West Yorkshire – and her interest in landscaping, mining, railways and canals – but they’re more known today for her graphic portrayals of her lesbian relationships. Lister, of course, has recently become much more widely known, thanks largely to Sally Wainwright’s excellent BBC drama ‘Gentleman Jack’, but Emma Donoghue has a long-standing interest in Lister’s exploits. Her latest novel details life at the Manor School for Young Ladies in York, and the real-life love affair between 14-year-old Lister and fellow pupil Eliza Raine. It’s 1805 and Raine is trying to get through lessons while avoiding demerit marks. But her workaday existence is up-ended when a new girl arrives at school: Lister. They share a room, commonly known as ‘The Slope’, and Raine is soon captivated by this newcomer (“Lister unsettles and thrills her as if something is about to topple from a shelf, as if a thunderstorm is on the way.”). Donoghue draws their blossoming relationship with real tenderness, which feels both authentic and thrilling. Lister comes across as a bundle of exciting contradictions, but it’s Raine who held my interest. Her story is given even more weight by the letters she sent to Lister ten years after their initial affair. These letters (imagined by the author) are interspersed between each chapter and give us the increasing sense that things did not pan out well for Raine. When I finished this enthralling book, it was her life that I wanted to explore further. RM

Published by Picador

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