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In Search of Eliza Raine: Emma Donoghue on Writing Learned by Heart

Posted on 17th August 2023 by Anna Orhanen

In her new novel Learned by Heart, acclaimed playwright and author of The Pull of the Stars and Haven Emma Donoghue draws from the real-life diaries of British-Indian Eliza Raine –  girl who arrive in England to be educated in a Yorkshire boarding school for young ladies – and Anne Lister, her fascinating, compelling fellow student who will later become known as Gentleman Jack. In this exclusive piece, the author discusses the specific challenges and thrilling discoveries that characterised the process of bringing the story of 'the first modern lesbian couple' to life in a work of fiction. 

Since my first third novel, Slammerkin (2000), I’ve published a lot of historical fiction that hews closely to fact. Even though this doubles the effort, I really enjoy the challenge of digging up all I can possibly discover about real individuals from the past – ideally obscure or long-forgotten ones, women and queers and outcasts – and trying to give them a fuller life by means of imaginative sympathy, guesswork, and the other techniques of fiction.

But the making of my new novel Learned by Heart has been peculiar in several ways. First, it’s taken so long. Not that it’s uncommon for a decade to pass between the seed landing in the soil of my mind and blooming into a published book, but this time it’s been more than three. Back in 1990, as a new PhD student at Cambridge, when I encountered Helena Whitbread’s volume of excerpts from Anne Lister’s secret journals, I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister 1791-1840, I was blown away. I knew I had to see Lister on stage, so I wrote a very loose adaptation – my first play. 

I remained fascinated by the question of how by her twenties Lister had become such an astonishingly confident lesbian, and in particular by her first affair, at boarding-school, with an illegitimate orphan heiress from India, Eliza Raine (1791-1860), which would haunt them both for the rest of their lives. In the early 90s, almost nothing was known about Raine, so I left it there. 

But in 1998 when I was Writer in Residence at the University of York, my partner Chris Roulston was a Fellow of the Centre for Eighteenth-Century Studies at King’s Manor, and we realised that her office was in the same lovely medieval building where Lister and Raine went to school and shared an attic bedroom called the Slope. I felt a tapping on my shoulder…

That’s another oddity about this novel. Chris and I have always taken a great interest in each other’s work but we’ve never converged like this; by the time Covid-19 hit, it was a full-on mutual obsession, which gave us lots to talk about during those dull days of lockdown. Chris was working on a research essay about Eliza Raine and co-editing the first collection about Lister, Decoding Anne Lister (just out from Cambridge University Press), and I was finally drafting Learned by Heart, tackling many of the same questions about this ‘lady of colour’ (as Raine called herself in her only surviving reference to her race) but with the toolbox of fiction.

And we had so many questions! I’ve often written about people for whom few facts survive in the historical record, but in Raine’s case it was actually more difficult because the one slim book about her was entirely unreliable. Fact-checking errors, confusions and guesses-offered-as-truth takes a lot longer than starting from nothing. 

And luckily I never felt alone. Helena Whitbread, the mother of Lister Studies, has been energetically kind ever since I first approached her about my play back in 1990. In 2015 she showed Chris and me around Lister’s home of Shibden Hall in Halifax, and read to us from the diaries (decoding on the spot) at West Yorkshire Archive Service. Also, something exceptional about the Anne Lister fandom sparked by Sally Wainwright’s outstanding series for BBC/HBO, Gentleman Jack (2019-22), is that the fans don’t just receive the material, they help generate it. In an amazing feedback loop, hundreds of them signed up as Code Breakers to do the backbreaking labour of transcribing that five-million-word diary and making it available online. But most of Lister’s vast correspondence remains inaccessible. There were about a hundred letters by/between/about her and Raine that I needed to read but couldn’t, because (a) they were in the West Yorkshire Archive Service in Halifax and I was stuck at home in Canada during extended lockdowns, and (b) anyway I’m still no good at puzzling out premodern handwriting. Steph Gallaway of PackedWithPotential.org (a hub for Lister Studies) rounded up a group of more than a dozen volunteers to transcribe all those letters for me, and in a state of thrilled anticipation I waited for them one by one – like emails sent across a gap of two centuries. 

The fact is, I’ve never had so much reason to be grateful for the help of others in working on a novel, and Learned by Heart could not have been written without it. I reached out to half a dozen scholars – notably Carol Adlam, who’s working on a graphic novel and biography of Eliza Raine – to illuminate different aspects of the puzzle of her life, from her arrival in England at six, to the legal muddle over the two wills she wrote in the asylum. Everyone shared their insights and discoveries so generously. But this novel’s real fairy godmother was the outstanding genealogist San Ní Ríocáin, and finding her @SRiocain was the single best use of all the time I’ve ever spent on Twitter. San responded to my endless queries over the course of a year, managing to establish accurate histories for everyone from Eliza Raine’s Yorkshire relatives and guardians to her schoolmates, friends and teachers; Learned by Heart is populated by side characters who only came to life because of something in a letter, newspaper article or tidbit that San dug up for me.

Thanks to Gentleman Jack, Anne Lister’s adventurous adult life as lover, landowner, entrepreneur and traveller is now pretty well known, but the tragic Eliza Raine is still not a household name, and the most basic facts (such as, who was her mother?) are still missing. I can only hope my novel will stimulate interest in this most fascinating insider/outsider, with her unique vantagepoint on Regency society, and that others will write their own versions of her story.

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