Anne Lister’s First Love
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Published in: November-December 2023 issue.


by Emma Donoghue
Little, Brown and Co. 336 pages, $28.


IN PROSE both tender and assured, Irish-Canadian novelist Emma Donoghue delivers a historical novel that transforms a remote historical episode—a lesbian love affair between adolescents at a British boarding school in 1805—into a universal tale. Learned by Heart explores the evolving psyches of its two main characters as they go against the grain of social convention over the course of one school year, during which their lives undergo dramatic change.

            Donoghue’s creation is the real-life love story of Anne Lister and the well-to-do Eliza Raine. Lister (1791–1840), who has been called “the first modern lesbian,” is the basis for the bbc/hbo drama Gentleman Jack. Raine was born in India to a British doctor and an unnamed Indian woman. Eliza and her sister came to England and were taken in by a white British family. While little is known about Eliza, much has been learned about Lister in recent decades after scholars discovered and decoded her five million-word diaries, parts of which have been published.

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Claude Peck is a former Star Tribune (Minneapolis) columnist and editor. He edited Doug Argue: Letters to the Future.