Four years ago, Emma Donoghue was very much under the radar. But then she published Room and that all changed. As everyone knows, that staggeringly great book was inspired by the Josef Fritzl case and was narrated by a five year old boy who had only ever known the titular Room. It was something of a departure for Donoghue who usually writes historical fiction that is based on real events and has a distinct lesbian slant. This book was written before Room but published in the UK afterwards and is in her more usual vein.
Based on a divorce case that scandalised Victorian England, The Sealed Letter is a fascinating read. Harry & Helen Codrington are very unhappily married, Helen fosters a friendship with Emily “Fido” Faithfull. Harry is an Admiral and posted to Malta, Helen and their two children go with him and for seven years, Fido and Helen lose touch. A chance meeting when the Codringtons return to London sees Fido drawn inexorably into Helen’s clandestine affair with Captain David Anderson.
Not only does this novel grip with its laying bare how horrifying it was to undergo divorce proceedings in 1865, but the personal story of Helen and Fido is absolutely riveting. Sympathies and allegiances for the strident spinster and her adulterous best friend shift from chapter to chapter. The sealed letter of the title is a ruse, one used to force Fido to testify in her friend’s divorce proceedings. Donoghue has taken the known facts of this scandal and with considerable skill, woven a beautiful work of fiction around it. One that, in its last lines, makes you look back over all you’ve read and re-calibrate your opinions one final time. And I say brava.
Donoghue notes on her website that this is the final installment in an unofficial trilogy that examines the British Class System and is her first 19th century novel. So many books that attempt this kind of story end up being dry as dust, but Donoghue’s meticulous research coupled with a very relatable style of writing means this is anything but.