The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue

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The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: A beautifully paced and well researched story of betrayal, scandal and intrigue in Victorian England, based on real events.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 484 Date: October 2011
Publisher: Picador
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781447205975

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Longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction 2012

If you are in the mood for a deliciously scandalous Victorian page-turner, look no further than Emma Donoghue's The Sealed Letter. Set in 1864, it's based on the real life story of secrets and scandal surrounding Helen Codrington's divorce from her older husband, the rather dull Vice Admiral Codrington. There's added spice and intrigue provided by the unwitting involvement in events of Emily 'Fido' Faithfull, an early mover in the rights of women movement and that good old standard, the Victorian spinster.

The narrative, told in the present tense, is beautifully paced and Donoghue's research is exemplary. You get not only a feeling for the intricacies of the events but also of the period, replete with the gossip of the age as well as the customs and legal structure that strongly favoured the male perspective. Fido is an early example of the female entrepreneur, running a publishing press in support of the rights of women to work, but this is still several years before notions of suffrage were even considered in serious terms.

You get a real sense of the scandal that a divorce trial had on society. At that time, the number of divorces per year numbered in the low hundreds, not least because the full blooded trial included a hearing before a jury (a male jury, of course) and that the male would stand to walk away with everything, including the children.

The Sealed Letter is a very different from Donoghue's best-selling Room. In fact, it was written before Room and originally published in Canada in 2008. While the success of a book like Room is obviously good for sales, it's always difficult to match expectations with subsequent books. Like Room, it is a highly readable story based on real events, but there the similarities end. What this shows is Donoghue's diversity.

The three protagonists are well drawn, with Donoghue focussing mostly on Helen and Fido. She takes some artistic licence with events, such as the compressing of the drawn out trial into relatively short period of time, and who can tell how accurate or otherwise the characterisations are? But putting that aside, Fido comes over as a well meaning but somewhat naïve about the ways of men and relationships. Ultimately, she gets used by both sides. The Vice Admiral is somewhat dull and staid and is completely unsuited to his younger wife, Helen. However, while one can have some sympathy with his wife's situation, it's far harder to excuse her selfish behaviour. With a couple of affairs under her belt, it is her treatment of Fido's friendship that is completely inexcusable. Some characters in books evoke sympathy in the reader because they are gloriously wicked - Helen is just plain unlikable. This turns the focus of the reader's attention to Fido who might otherwise have been seen to be too dowdy and frumpy for the reader to love.

A particularly nice touch is the chapter headings that are all legal terms but with some highly pertinent alternative meanings.

The Sealed Letter is longlisted for this year's Orange Prize list, where it must be a strong contender, although to my mind it's perhaps more Costa Prize material. It's not as originally startling as Room, but it is a superbly readable piece of historic fiction, with a strong narrative and illuminating the issues of the day, and particularly the early days of the, what was then called, woman-ist movement.

There are a couple of nice, gentle twists towards the end, although it's not a book that relies on these. It's a book about betrayal, friendship, and reputation. It's hugely enjoyable.

Our thanks to the kind people at Picador for sending this Orange-nominated book to us.

For more excellent fiction on the emergence of the suffrage movement, albeit a few years after this story, Half of the Human Race by Anthony Quinn is highly recommended. Amongst the other Orange long listed titles this year is a rather more modern take on adultery in the form of The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright.

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