Bibliophile | ‘Learned by Heart’ remembers the love of Anne and Eliza

Learned by Heart
by Emma Donoghue

It was 1805 when Eliza Raine, under the guardianship of her father’s friend, went to an elite boarding school in York. Her recently deceased father was English and her mother was Indian, and probably still alive but not acknowledged because the relationship was seen as being taboo.

At that time the school had 41 pupils from England’s privileged families it and taught reading, writing and reckoning, topped off with a few frills that would help the girls hook good husbands.

Although from wealthy backgrounds, the school had the girls live as if they were poor, because roughing it was believed to build character and underfeeding strengthened the female constitution.

When Anne Lister arrived at the school, she was crammed into the small room in the garret where the only place you could stand was in the middle of the room. The room was already occupied by Eliza and the two developed an extremely intense friendship and planned to spend the rest of their lives together.

Anne criticized the school for making them memorise random passages from old books and showed Eliza how to break rules that Eliza had not even thought to question. Anne also showed Eliza “a new species of happiness” in the confines of their small room.

Based on actual women from the early nineteenth century, Anne Lister went on to leave her mark on history as a ‘female invert’ who dressed in male clothing and inherited her family’s estate after her four brothers all died young.

Eliza and Anne did not have their planned life together after school as Anne had a series of female lovers and chronicled her exploits in a journal. Learned by Heart fills in some gaps in their lives and, to put their relationship into context, the book opens with letters written to Anne from Eliza who is residing in an asylum.

As Napoleon waged war throughout Europe, Eliza sought refuge from Anne’s betrayal and ended living most of the rest of her life in the asylum. She wrote letters to Anne that were not even sent, lamenting that she had memorised passages from the wrong books.

Lezly Herbert

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