How Emma Donoghue’s own teenage crush inspired her novel on Anne Lister’s first lesbian love

I suppose I do like to lock people up,” admits author Emma Donoghue. In her devastating Booker Prize-shortlisted 2010 novel Room, the film adaptation of which won Brie Larson an Oscar, the Irish-Canadian novelist trapped her mother and child heroes in a sex offender’s outhouse. Then, in 2016’s The Wonder (made into a Netflix film starring Florence Pugh last year), she put a 19th-century “fasting girl” under a punishing round-the-clock watch, and in 2022’s Haven, she trapped three 17th-century monks on a remote island.

“It comes from my interest in women’s history, which is really a study of confinement,” she explains. “Their griefs and troubles so often stemmed from what they were not allowed to do, or not allowed to go. And in pure literary terms I find it easier to increase the emotional temperature of a story if the characters are limited in their movements and actions.”

She’s at it again in her new novel, Learned by Heart, about an Anglo-Indian girl committed to a Yorkshire lunatic asylum in 1816. “So yes,” laughs Donoghue, “OK, the prison camp vibe is ongoing. And I do feel sheepish when people pick up on it. I think they’re wondering what kind of elaborate power game I’m playing out, taking my dolls and putting needles through their nipples. I’m thinking of the Barbie movie, in case you haven’t seen it,” she says, before slipping off on a tangent: “I had Sindy dolls not Barbies. I gave mine not only ear piercings, but nipple holes – all sorts of holes. Not in a voodoo sense, I wasn’t trying to hurt them. Just… give them a makeover, maybe? Shape them.”

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