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Novelist's fascination with history comes alive on stage
by Sarah Katherine Bowden

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Novelist Emma Donoghue has had a long and rewarding relationship with Regency historical figure Anne Lister.

Lister created a series of coded diaries that documented her love affairs with women while operating as part of the landed gentry in mid-1800s Yorkshire. Donoghue first read these diaries in the 1980s, and adapted the Englishwoman's life story for the stage while working towards her doctorate in 1990s Dublin. Her play, I Know My Own Heart, receives its U.S. premiere from Pride Films & Plays this January. The Irish-Canadian author, who identifies as a lesbian, credits her fascination with Lister for sparking a love of writing about history and historical figures.

"Anne Lister changed my life and career," Donoghue said. "I had just started writing fiction as a student, and I came across her diaries in a bookstore. I related to how passionate she was as a person, and yet how different she was from me. She was quite a snob, and I couldn't see myself in that." This mixture of relatable desire and an undesirable trait propelled Donoghue to publish essays about Lister, as well as write her first dramatic script about Lister's relationships with a few of her lovers.

Lister was nicknamed "Gentleman Jack" for her use of masculine dress. Although she found the sobriquet embarrassing, she was audacious in taking on romantic partners. She wrote in her diary that she would "love and only love the fairer sex." Donoghue found her boldness original. "I don't think it occurred to her not to hit on everybody," she told Windy City Times. "A lot of women over the centuries passionately held hands, but women like Anne Lister were rare, and they showed what was possible."

Lister even defied institutional conventions concerning the church. She took communion with heiress Ann Walker during an 1834 mass in Goodramgate, York, at Holy Trinity Church, which led to the ladies' conviction that they were married. Donoghue has visited Holy Trinity. The church has "highback pews that look like a chocolate box with the lid lifted off," and the historical event confirmed for Donoghue that the tension between public and private life was clear to Lister. "You can tell her diaries were written with an eye to the future," she stated. "I wanted to literally let her stand out, and be acted out. Anne Lister should be strutting in her boots across the stage."

Elizabeth Swanson, director of I Know My Own Heart for Pride Films & Plays, said she finds the play clarifying for the audience. "I think Emma did a really smart thing which is live in the question of Lister's identity," she said. "None of the words that we have today, homosexual, much less even trans, existed in her time. She is able to imagine for herself what she might want when there's no institutional or structural support for what she might want. The play is a 'What do I want?' story, rather than a 'Who am I?' story."

The play itself is split between dialogue scenes between Lister and her lovers, and passages performed from Lister's diary. Swanson has cast actors with facility for classical language, and she treats the diary entries as direct address monologues to the viewers. "This way, the conclusions live in the audience," Swanson said.

She also cast actors across a wide variety of ages, as stigmas surrounding age and choice in society have shifted since Lister's day. She cast Vahishta Vafadari as Anne specifically because the performer understood both Lister's taciturn nature and had the stamina to survive the marathon nature of the piece, given that Lister exits the action onstage only once.

Donoghue is perhaps best known for her contemporary-set novel about motherhood and survival, Room, which she recently adapted for the screen and the stage. But she has also written eighteenth and nineteenth century-set novels that often center around queer or marginalized women, such as Slammerkin, The Sealed Letter, and Frog Music. And she grew up participating in theater through weekly classes, so she understands the value of performance.

"I acted all through my teens. It was the most useful thing I ever learned, for the business of being a public writer" she said. "Actually, in the first production of I Know My Own Heart at school, I ended up playing Tiv. I had to step in and save the day. After every play I see, I think acting is the most thrilling thing there is."

She finds the gender play and heightened nature of theater a good fit for telling historical stories, and in particular, for telling stories of queer women like herself. "It's freeing," she stated. "It's great to know that there are women going through the same things as me, so there's solidarity across millennia. This lets you know you're from a tribe. You're not actually an ugly duckling. You're a swan."

Donoghue is happy to see the play mounted in Chicago, so that Americans can be introduced to Lister's life. "It's so lifting to get back into the theater," she said. "What I remember about the play's research process, is that it got me started on historical plays, novels and short stories. Anne Lister's work was the wardrobe that led me to Narnia. The past reached up out of that book and shouted like the evil queen, 'Make me famous!'"

I Know My Own Heart opens Sunday, Jan. 13, at The Buena, Pride Arts Center, 4147 N. Broadway. Tickets are available now at, or at 866-811-4111 and 773-857-0222.

Also, "Conversation with Emma Donoghue" will take place Sunday, Jan. 13, at 4:30 p.m. at The Buena. ( Windy City Times' Catey Sullivan will moderate the discussion. ) Admission is free, but reservations are recommended; call 773-857-0222.

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