Book review: The Sealed Letter, Emma Donoghue

The Sealed Letter book coverAnother book from my National Libraries Day haul – nearly got through them all now! I picked up The Sealed Letter because I’d read and enjoyed Room when it was shortlisted for the Booker, so was interested to see how Donoghue would handle a very different subject for this book. The plot sounded intriguing:

After a separation of many years, Emily ‘Fido’ Faithfull bumps into her old friend Helen Codrington on the streets of Victorian London. Much has changed: Helen is more and more unhappy in her marriage to the older Vice-Admiral Codrington, while Fido has become a successful woman of business and a pioneer in the British Women’s Movement. But, for all her independence of mind, Fido is too trusting of her once-dear companion and finds herself drawn into aiding Helen’s obsessive affair with a young army officer. When the Vice-Admiral seizes the children and sues for divorce, the women’s friendship unravels amid accusations of adultery and counter-accusations of cruelty and attempted rape, as well as a mysterious ‘sealed letter’ that could destroy more than one life…

Historical novel? Courtroom drama? Early feminism? Sold.

The novel is based on actual newspaper reports of the 1864 Codrington divorce: at a time when divorces were becoming more common, but were still rare enough to cause a scandal, a high-profile case like this was exhaustively reported.The Sealed Letter is obviously very well researched, and the knowledge that the courtroom dialogue is accurate as reported prevents some details from seeming overly contrived. For example, in the author’s note at the end Donoghue notes that one witness’ testimony, hinting at adultery with a reference to a “stained dress”, may seem like “anachronistic allusions to the Bill Clinton impeachment”; but is actually taken directly from the records of the trial.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. After a slightly slow start, it becomes quite a gripping page-turner: the gradual revelations through the trial and Helen’s increasingly ruthless machinations made it a genuinely suspenseful read. I also rather enjoyed learning more about the legal position of women in marriage and divorce at the time. I was actually quite shocked to find just how unfair it was: I knew of course that women at the time were considered in law to be essentially the property of their husbands, but hadn’t realised, for example, that a divorced woman had literally no right to see her children ever again (this was the case until 1925); or that a man could apply for divorce on the basis of his wife’s adultery, but the reverse was not true for women.

My only gripe, however, is that the two female main characters didn’t really ring true for me (unlike Vice-Admiral Codrington, who I thought was well and sympathetically drawn). Helen Codrington seemed like a caricature of a spoiled, bored socialite; and Emily Faithfull was just infuriating. She was naive to the point of stupidity, and the explanations for why she is so easily manipulated by Helen struck me as rather contrived. I thought her portrayal was a bit insulting to the real Emily Faithfull, to be honest, who by all accounts was an intelligent, accomplished business woman.

An enjoyable read, and one that left me wanting to know more about both the development of English divorce law and the character of Emily Faithfull (the author’s note is very interesting on both these points!); but marred slightly by underdeveloped characterisation and a slightly contrived “revelation” at the end.

Verdict: 3/5

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