Donoghue is among the most fearless contemporary novelists we have: an immensely talented writer who is a great storyteller and, based on her extensive body of work, unafraid of subjects that give her less-courageous peers pause ... A fascinating story set at an English girls school in 1805 and — wait for it — what we once called an insane asylum in 1815. It has characters with complex internal lives, insights into the human soul, and a wrenching love story that’s both queer and multiracial ... My one quibble with the novel (and it’s a small one) is that Donoghue shares a lot of her research into the routines of school life in the 19th century, and those rituals slow the tale. But this is a small objection. Donoghue offers what I am sure Lister herself would view as a ripping good spin on her remarkable story.
Everything about the spellbinding Learned by Heart strikes me as nearly perfect ... Gorgeously rendered ... The result is even more masterful because of the seeming ease with which it combines the lyrically imagined with the painstakingly researched ... Remarkable.
Though her novel is written from the perspective of an increasingly besotted Eliza, it is no hagiography ... Donoghue is at her very best evoking the mysteries and miracles of first love ... Simply and without a shred of sentimentality, she evokes a relationship that is convincing and exquisitely touching.
As a reader you want to feel in safe, well-researched hands, but you don’t necessarily need paragraphs explaining the specifics of Georgian fashion. Donoghue, alas, enjoys such paragraphs ... The sex scenes, when they arrive, tend more towards obfuscation ... Donoghue wants to give a voice to a woman whom society silenced, and she spent decades researching to do it. Even if Learned by Heart has flaws as a novel, it succeeds in bringing to life this fascinating character.
Donoghue excels at turning historical eras and settings into compelling, believable fiction. Like the best teachers at school, she packs the learning and knowledge in without the reader ever getting bored. Nothing is laboured; her skill is her lightness of touch ... Contains plenty of wisdom and erudition ... Lister is an intensely vibrant character who lights up the school, her classmates and teachers with her atypical interests, insatiable curiosity and restless intelligence. She seems in a way the ideal character for Donoghue, loaded with arcane knowledge, Latin maxims, historical facts, opinions galore, all of which she delivers in a breezy style in keeping with her character.
The perils of isolation and confinement are once again countered by the unexpected grace and tenderness captivity can sometimes bring ... This novel is based on a true story; both women were born in 1791 and Anne Lister kept a 5mn word diary, but you wouldn’t know it. The book wears its painstaking research like the light shifts the schoolgirls sleep in.
A slow-burning story of first love ... Incidental details root the novel in time and place ... If I have any criticism of this carefully researched and accessibly written novel... it is the author’s unbridled adoration of Anne Lister, which merely adds to the modern myth.
Immersive, sprightly, and sensual ... he characters' delight in language makes for playful prose full of euphemisms, Latin phrases, and French proverbs. And in the center of it all is a tender record of groundbreaking young passion.
The beauty of Donoghue’s thoroughly researched novel rooted in Lister’s famous diary lies in the ways it explores how unequal the effects of love can be on two souls ... It’s truly a tragedy when your life’s best moments are already in the rearview mirror.
A story of risk, love and two young women discovering themselves by way of each other ... The language here—of deep friendship and longing, text and subtext—is captivating. Sentences sing, and details shine. Donoghue has a remarkable ability to hold you in a moment, allowing you to see as a character does, knowing the questions each breath contains.
Lister is a sharply drawn character, Eliza much less so. We see how hard Eliza works to follow the rules, to be accepted, to belong to this society that has so many barriers against her, but not much beyond that ... Donoghue has created a vivid world here ... Some may find these walls suffocatingly narrow, but others will find Eliza's and Lister's passion enough to carry them through.
Historical fiction often dwells in the gap between what happened and what was recorded. The best examples also explore the historical conditions for why that gap exists. Emma Donoghue’s latest novel, Learned by Heart, does just that ... The extent of the research is impressive, though at times it weighs down the narrative with unnecessary historical details, particularly in the first half of the novel. Nevertheless, Learned by Heart is a salient, passionate example of how historical fiction can expose and enrich histories that are otherwise obscured.
Impressive ... Donoghue makes good use of her choice to delve into Eliza’s perspective rather than Anne’s by exploring the steep cost for her protagonist of tethering herself to a rebel. This melancholic love story is imbued with deep feeling and generosity toward its characters.