Emma Donoghue On The Inspiration Behind Her Gripping New Historical Romance

In her latest novel, Learned By Heart, the prolific writer reimagines an 1800s lesbian romance that feels just as timely today.
Author Emma Donoghue wearing a purple dress and necklace on a purple background (Photo: Julien Reynaud/APS-Medias/ABACAPRESS.COM and iStock)

It was a rainy day in 1990 when novelist Emma Donoghue, then a 20-year-old student at Cambridge, ducked into a bookshop to seek shelter. Browsing the shelves, she came across a book entitled I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister. If today Donaghue is considered something of a Lister expert—her just-released novel, Learned by Heart, is a fictionalization of Lister's early years (more on that later)—this moment could serve as her origin story. Lister, described by some as “the first modern lesbian,” was a gender-bending Regency-era landowner who kept some four million words of detailed diaries, all written in code. The diaries were hidden by a member of Lister’s family after her death and languished in obscurity until they were discovered by British historian Helena Whitbread, who set about decoding them, and published the first volume in 1988.

The book found Donoghue at the perfect time. She was obsessed with seeking out lesbian narratives in literature. She had been out to herself since she was 14, and describes it as an era when she felt, as she tells me, “isolated and alone. Literature was the first time I began to learn there have been other women in history who fell in love with other women.” Growing up, she spent Saturday afternoons at the library in her hometown, Dublin, where she was only allowed to check out two books at a time; she would often borrow the library cards of her seven older siblings so that she could check out more. She read both Emily Dickinson and pulpy novels, seeking queer narratives wherever they were available.

Related: Our Favourite Books of Fall 2023 That first collection of Lister’s published diaries changed Donoghue’s life. “There’s just something direct about Anne Lister’s voice,” says Donoghue over a Zoom call from her Parisian sublet, where she’s been living the last year with her two teenage children and her wife, professor Chris Roulston, during Roulston's sabbatical. (The family normally lives in London, Ont., as they have since 1998.) Lister’s politics were different from Donoghue’s—the former was an arch Tory and a ruthless landlord—but she was a fascinating historical figure. Lister was visibly butch and mocked by locals with the nickname Gentleman Jack, “Jack” being pejorative slang for lesbian. “All the sort of things that should have made her cowed or crushed, and yet she marches through the pages of her diary with astonishing confidence,” Donoghue says. She wrote a play based on Lister’s diaries, also called I Know My Own Heart, which was staged in 1991, and published her first work of nonfiction in 1993, Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture, 1668-1801, which she describes as being “all about what might Anne Lister have possibly read.”

In the 30 years since, both Anne Lister and Emma Donoghue have exploded in the public consciousness. Lister has been the subject of multiple books and adaptations, most famously Gentleman Jack, which aired on HBO and followed her later years (Lister died in 1840, at the age of 49).

Donoghue, meanwhile, has published some 20 books, including historical fiction and short story collections. Her contemporary novel Room, released in 2010, sold three million copies, won the Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and was adapted into an Academy Award-winning film starring Brie Larson, for which Donoghue wrote the screenplay.


Donoghue likes working on multiple projects at once, which helps explain her immensely prolific output. “I have a main novel [I] at a time, but then I become a bit sullen about that novel’s grip on me,” she says. “I sneak off and write other things. It feels like no work to do, because I’m cheating on the main novel.” Her meticulously researched fiction will take readers to the unfolding friendship between a French burlesque dancer and a crossdressing frog catcher during San Francisco’s blustering summer of 1876 (Frog Music, published in 2014), or quarantined in a maternity ward in 1918 Dublin (The Pull of the Stars, published in 2020 but written before the COVID-19 pandemic).

Learned by Heart is a return to her first great love. The book focusses on Anne Lister’s schoolgirl era, specifically the year she spent at the Manor School for Young Ladies in 1805, when she was 14. This was before Lister was a fervent diarist, before she established her all-black, androgynous wardrobe, before people started calling her Gentleman Jack. By focusing on her less documented years, Donoghue is able to create something of an origin story for a future superhero.

Cover of Emma Donoghue’s Learned By Heart (Photo: HarperCollins)

“I’m always interested in the untold stories,” she says. “[Lister] represents herself so well in the diaries, I love the idea of going back to the very beginning, before she was sure of everything.” (“Emma’s telling of the Anne Lister story, both in literature and the theatre, has been instrumental in furthering knowledge of the earlier years of Anne’s life,” says the 93-year-old Whitbread, who is currently working on a biography of Lister.)

So interested is Donoghue in untold stories that she wrote Learned by Heart from the perspective of Eliza Raine, the biracial orphan heiress with whom Lister shares a dorm room (and later, a bed). Raine’s life is even less documented than Lister’s teen years. She was born in Madras, the illegitimate daughter of a British father and Indian mother who remains unknown. She was an outsider in York, in ways completely different yet perhaps complementary to the ways in which Lister was an outsider. Raine and Lister were each other’s first loves. They wrote to each other extensively after Lister was made to leave Manor Hall, developing a code that would later serve as a backbone to Lister’s diaries. Following her time at the school, Raine was institutionalized.


As with so many of her other iconic novels, Learned by Heart is about a self-contained world. Every scene takes place on school grounds, interspersed with heavily surveilled letters an older Raine writes to Lister from the asylum. Teenage Lister is impatient to grow up and experience a world that has felt, up until that point, closed off to her (helped in no small part by the Napoleonic Wars in Europe). Raine, meanwhile, has been pushed out of every home and family structure that she knows and finds in Lister a sense of safety and promise of a secure future. It’s a novel that is specific to its time and place but, in many ways, feels universally teenage.

“Emma’s novel really captures the intensity of adolescent passion within this same-sex world and the sense of loss from which Eliza never recovers once school is over. In contrast to academic writing, that is something only literary fiction can convey,” says Roulston, who also has written about Lister and included a chapter on Eliza Raine for an in-progress monograph called School Daze: Queer Nostalgia in Modern Girls’ Boarding School Narratives. (“Can I just say, Chris and I don’t usually do this,” Donoghue says with a laugh about her and her wife working simultaneously on the same subject matter. “It sounds so Grey Gardens. I don’t know how the timing happened, but to have a mutual obsession during the pandemic was great.”)

In the final letter that Raine sends to Lister from the asylum (as imagined by Donoghue), she writes, “Can’t the past be a sort of present too[...]? Since every moment is fleeting, gone as soon as noted, so perhaps past, present and future are all thin slices of reality, all flickering, all equally (in some sense) true.” I ask Donoghue about her own relationship to time, especially when returning to the same story so many times in her career.

“Clearly, the past is never really past for me,” she says. “Sometimes, I’m just sort of bewildered about the state of the world. Understanding the culture you’re in, this very moment, can be harder because it’s all new and fresh and happening day by day. It can be very comforting to take the long perspective on things.”


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