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Author Emma Donoghue mixes wonderful fiction with historical facts

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Her novels, including Learned by Heart, offer the best of both worlds

Article content

Learned By Heart

Emma Donoghue

Article content

HarperAvenue

With this

Diamond I cut

this glass with

this face I kissed

a lass

These words, dating back some two centuries, were scratched on the window of a historic building in the English cathedral city of York. And for Irish-Canadian novelist Emma Donoghue, they would provide an important portal into a past she was seeking to recreate in her latest novel, Learned By Heart.

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At one point in its 700-year history, King’s Manor had been a School For Young Ladies. That made it a place of consuming interest for Donoghue because it was the real-life setting for a novel slowly taking shape in her mind — a novel inspired by the story of two schoolgirls who fall dangerously in love in early 19th Century England.

King’s Manor is now part of the University of York campus, but Donoghue was anxious to understand the life of the building as it was some 200 years ago. “I asked an historian to walk around it with me,” she says now. “There were all those little things I hadn’t first noticed — like the drainpipes!” Detail matters for this author.

There was also the graffiti, which led to her discovery, in the manor’s venerable Huntington Room, of the passionate words she would later quote at the start of this new book.

“It was so moving to read them,” Donoghue remembers. An idea began taking shape in her mind. What if this message had been written by Anne Lister, the most aggressive and uninhibited of the two young lovers in the story she wanted to tell?

“As a fiction writer I try to alternate between two hats,” Donoghue says by phone from her home in London, Ont. On the one hand, there’s her zeal for historical accuracy and meticulous research — and on the other there’s her acceptance of them as a springboard that will allow her fictional imagination to take flight.

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Her endearing short story, Man And Boy, was triggered by late Victorian reports in the Times of Lon-don about the plight of an elephant named Jumbo. And her controversial Booker-nominated novel, Room, happened because of shocking revelations about an Austrian woman freed after having been held captive for 24 years in her father’s basement and giving birth to seven of his children. It was the plight of the latter that seized Donoghue’s imagination and led to a 2010 novel that sold more than three million copies worldwide and an award-winning film version for which she wrote the screenplay.

There have been seven further books since Room; all revealing an astonishing range in style and subject matter. (Her 2022 novel, Haven, was set in 600 and dealt with a mission to build a monastery on a lump of rock in the North Atlantic.) But Donoghue’s core discipline remains steadfast.

“I always try to write something that is in substance true as well as being a satisfying novel,” she tells Postmedia.

learned by heart

So what about her latest? “It’s about teenagers,” Donoghue says matter-of-factly — but that doesn’t deny the book its psychological complexity. It contains heady moments of joy and buoyancy that will leave the reader smiling — also heartbreak and betrayal. Furthermore, unusual for such a prolific author, the novel was 30 years in the making: as Donoghue learned more about these two lives, the dynamic of the story she was determined to tell would shift, Learned By Heart introduces us to two 14-year-old schoolgirls, Eliza Raine and Anne Lister, who find themselves sharing a chilly garret room at King’s Manor School. Eliza is Eurasian, brown of skin and illegitimate, the daughter of an Indian mother and an East India Company father, both now deceased. Eliza will eventually inherit a small fortune, but as a child she is lonely, lacking in self-confidence and painfully aware of the effect her mixed-race status will have on her future place in English society. And then Anne Lister enters her world.

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Anne is the quintessential tomboy — smart, contemptuous of convention, and always ready to take risks and offend the tiptoe propriety of the school. Her infectious, irrepressible personality will have a pronounced affect her shy, withdrawn roommate who becomes more confident and conscious of her own self-worth. A deep friendship turns to love, both emotional and physical, and eventually leads to tragedy for Eliza after Anne romps into adulthood and further relationships.

“Lister did knock her off balance,” Donoghue says. “For Eliza it’s this all-consuming love that Anne seems to have moved on from, so I was really trying to capture the psychology of someone who is obsessed with this one glorious moment. She had her one true love and then.”

Donoghue is speaking with warmth and sympathy about Eliza now, but 30 years ago it was Anne Lister who was engaging her attention. That was when she discovered a published selection from Lister’s five-million-word journal, a work whose coded references to her many female conquests would see her dubbed later as “the first modern lesbian.” Her life fascinated Donoghue, so much so that her first play, I Know My Own Heart, was about Lister, a woman who was also a snob, an arch conservative and a liar. But, as Donoghue once told the Guardian newspaper, Lister also “looked into her heart and wrote about what she found there with unflinching precision.”

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Lister began writing her diaries at the same time that Jane Austen was writing her novels — and they serve as a reminder that Regency England contained more than one world. Donoghue says a single page from the diaries can convey Lister’s “passion, her drive, her sexual confidence and her contagious courting of women.”

She also thinks modern readers need to come to terms with the culture of the day. “All the women in Anne’s life seem to take into their stride the oddity of Anne Lister. That’s because this was an era when there were no labels pertaining to one’s sexuality. No one asked you if you were gay or straight.”

However, in reading the diaries, Donoghue was also tantalized by mysterious references to “this young woman who at one point became quite important to Lister.” Eliza was entering the picture — this enigmatic person whose teenage passion would be succeeded by a shrivelled “twilight zone” of existence for 40 years.

“I think that had I written this novel early on, I would have been so besotted by Anne Lister as a character that I would have focused on her,” Donoghue says. “Back then I didn’t know that much about Eliza Raine.” But then came the discovery of a 100 letters from Eliza — raw and revealing letters about her fate — and a change in Donoghue’s own perspective. Eliza was moving to centre stage.

Donoghue isn’t into delivering “messages” with her novels “That’s for the reader. As a novelist, I’m rarely making a statement. I’m trying to show a situation and its two sides — for example moments when Anne is delightful and many others when she’s unscrupulous. I like readers to draw their own conclusions.

“There is relevance today in the novel’s examination of nascent sexuality — but I don’t know if I could draw a lesson from it.”

Article content

Comments

Postmedia is committed to maintaining a lively but civil forum for discussion and encourage all readers to share their views on our articles. Comments may take up to an hour for moderation before appearing on the site. We ask you to keep your comments relevant and respectful. We have enabled email notifications—you will now receive an email if you receive a reply to your comment, there is an update to a comment thread you follow or if a user you follow comments. Visit our Community Guidelines for more information and details on how to adjust your email settings.

Join the Conversation


Her novels, including Learned by Heart, offer the best of both worlds

Article content

Learned By Heart

Emma Donoghue

Article content

HarperAvenue

With this

Diamond I cut

this glass with

this face I kissed

a lass

These words, dating back some two centuries, were scratched on the window of a historic building in the English cathedral city of York. And for Irish-Canadian novelist Emma Donoghue, they would provide an important portal into a past she was seeking to recreate in her latest novel, Learned By Heart.

Advertisement 2

Article content

At one point in its 700-year history, King’s Manor had been a School For Young Ladies. That made it a place of consuming interest for Donoghue because it was the real-life setting for a novel slowly taking shape in her mind — a novel inspired by the story of two schoolgirls who fall dangerously in love in early 19th Century England.

King’s Manor is now part of the University of York campus, but Donoghue was anxious to understand the life of the building as it was some 200 years ago. “I asked an historian to walk around it with me,” she says now. “There were all those little things I hadn’t first noticed — like the drainpipes!” Detail matters for this author.

There was also the graffiti, which led to her discovery, in the manor’s venerable Huntington Room, of the passionate words she would later quote at the start of this new book.

“It was so moving to read them,” Donoghue remembers. An idea began taking shape in her mind. What if this message had been written by Anne Lister, the most aggressive and uninhibited of the two young lovers in the story she wanted to tell?

“As a fiction writer I try to alternate between two hats,” Donoghue says by phone from her home in London, Ont. On the one hand, there’s her zeal for historical accuracy and meticulous research — and on the other there’s her acceptance of them as a springboard that will allow her fictional imagination to take flight.

Advertisement 3

Article content

Her endearing short story, Man And Boy, was triggered by late Victorian reports in the Times of Lon-don about the plight of an elephant named Jumbo. And her controversial Booker-nominated novel, Room, happened because of shocking revelations about an Austrian woman freed after having been held captive for 24 years in her father’s basement and giving birth to seven of his children. It was the plight of the latter that seized Donoghue’s imagination and led to a 2010 novel that sold more than three million copies worldwide and an award-winning film version for which she wrote the screenplay.

There have been seven further books since Room; all revealing an astonishing range in style and subject matter. (Her 2022 novel, Haven, was set in 600 and dealt with a mission to build a monastery on a lump of rock in the North Atlantic.) But Donoghue’s core discipline remains steadfast.

“I always try to write something that is in substance true as well as being a satisfying novel,” she tells Postmedia.

learned by heart

So what about her latest? “It’s about teenagers,” Donoghue says matter-of-factly — but that doesn’t deny the book its psychological complexity. It contains heady moments of joy and buoyancy that will leave the reader smiling — also heartbreak and betrayal. Furthermore, unusual for such a prolific author, the novel was 30 years in the making: as Donoghue learned more about these two lives, the dynamic of the story she was determined to tell would shift, Learned By Heart introduces us to two 14-year-old schoolgirls, Eliza Raine and Anne Lister, who find themselves sharing a chilly garret room at King’s Manor School. Eliza is Eurasian, brown of skin and illegitimate, the daughter of an Indian mother and an East India Company father, both now deceased. Eliza will eventually inherit a small fortune, but as a child she is lonely, lacking in self-confidence and painfully aware of the effect her mixed-race status will have on her future place in English society. And then Anne Lister enters her world.

Advertisement 4

Article content

Anne is the quintessential tomboy — smart, contemptuous of convention, and always ready to take risks and offend the tiptoe propriety of the school. Her infectious, irrepressible personality will have a pronounced affect her shy, withdrawn roommate who becomes more confident and conscious of her own self-worth. A deep friendship turns to love, both emotional and physical, and eventually leads to tragedy for Eliza after Anne romps into adulthood and further relationships.

“Lister did knock her off balance,” Donoghue says. “For Eliza it’s this all-consuming love that Anne seems to have moved on from, so I was really trying to capture the psychology of someone who is obsessed with this one glorious moment. She had her one true love and then.”

Donoghue is speaking with warmth and sympathy about Eliza now, but 30 years ago it was Anne Lister who was engaging her attention. That was when she discovered a published selection from Lister’s five-million-word journal, a work whose coded references to her many female conquests would see her dubbed later as “the first modern lesbian.” Her life fascinated Donoghue, so much so that her first play, I Know My Own Heart, was about Lister, a woman who was also a snob, an arch conservative and a liar. But, as Donoghue once told the Guardian newspaper, Lister also “looked into her heart and wrote about what she found there with unflinching precision.”

Advertisement 5

Article content

Lister began writing her diaries at the same time that Jane Austen was writing her novels — and they serve as a reminder that Regency England contained more than one world. Donoghue says a single page from the diaries can convey Lister’s “passion, her drive, her sexual confidence and her contagious courting of women.”

She also thinks modern readers need to come to terms with the culture of the day. “All the women in Anne’s life seem to take into their stride the oddity of Anne Lister. That’s because this was an era when there were no labels pertaining to one’s sexuality. No one asked you if you were gay or straight.”

However, in reading the diaries, Donoghue was also tantalized by mysterious references to “this young woman who at one point became quite important to Lister.” Eliza was entering the picture — this enigmatic person whose teenage passion would be succeeded by a shrivelled “twilight zone” of existence for 40 years.

“I think that had I written this novel early on, I would have been so besotted by Anne Lister as a character that I would have focused on her,” Donoghue says. “Back then I didn’t know that much about Eliza Raine.” But then came the discovery of a 100 letters from Eliza — raw and revealing letters about her fate — and a change in Donoghue’s own perspective. Eliza was moving to centre stage.

Donoghue isn’t into delivering “messages” with her novels “That’s for the reader. As a novelist, I’m rarely making a statement. I’m trying to show a situation and its two sides — for example moments when Anne is delightful and many others when she’s unscrupulous. I like readers to draw their own conclusions.

“There is relevance today in the novel’s examination of nascent sexuality — but I don’t know if I could draw a lesson from it.”

Article content

Comments

Postmedia is committed to maintaining a lively but civil forum for discussion and encourage all readers to share their views on our articles. Comments may take up to an hour for moderation before appearing on the site. We ask you to keep your comments relevant and respectful. We have enabled email notifications—you will now receive an email if you receive a reply to your comment, there is an update to a comment thread you follow or if a user you follow comments. Visit our Community Guidelines for more information and details on how to adjust your email settings.

Join the Conversation

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