by Emma Donoghue
Emma Donoghue’s The Sealed Letter (Harcourt, 2008) is a “ripped from the headlines” re–imagining of an actual 1864 lawsuit. While her novel illuminates the place of women, the state of marriage, and the hypocrisies of Victorian England; at its heart, it’s about the painful and sometimes staggering costs of remaining true to your beliefs. The two main characters are unlikely friends: staunch feminist and spinster Emily “Fido” Faithfull (readers will discover that her name is quite apt), who is known in London circles as the publisher of such pro–women periodicals of the period as English Woman’s Journal and Victoria Magazine; and the beautiful Helen, unhappily married to Vice–Admiral Henry Codrington. Indulging in a series of love affairs with her husband’s junior officers during the family’s seven-year posting in Malta, Helen continues to flaunt convention even after the Codringtons move back to England. When the two old friends meet by chance (or is it chance?) on a London street, Helen begs Fido to help her secretly spend time with the young army officer with whom she’s currently infatuated. Fido is torn between her love for Helen and her knowledge that what her friend is asking of her is wrong. When Codrington finally reaches the end of his patience with his wife’s behavior and sues for divorce, there ensues a courtroom drama that rivals television’s “Divorce Court” for its display of all aspects of human behavior — from the most noble to the rankest, from a semen–stained dress to a betrayal of friendship to doing the right thing at whatever cost.
What Donoghue excels at is a richly descriptive writing style. Here is Fido, thinking about the city she loves: “The fact is that for all its infinite varieties of filth, London is the thumping heart of everything that interests her, the only place she can imagine living.” Donoghue also opens up the past to us — she has the ability to make a contemporary reader understand the behaviors and beliefs of an age supposedly quite different from our own. Ah, you will ask yourself when you finish this intriguing historical novel, but has human nature changed over the intervening years?