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Monday, 5 March 2012

Book Review: The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue

Having read and thoroughly enjoyed Slammerkin, I had high hopes for my next foray into Donoghue's historical fiction. I wasn't disappointed. The Sealed Letter is a fictionalised account of the Codrington divorce case of the 1860s, a scandal that was heavily reported in the press at the time and every salacious detail lapped up by the public. As Donoghue notes in her interview at the end of the book, the case feels modern because of the urban setting and - I believe - because the same sort of salacious gossip pleases the public now as it did 150 years ago. However, aside from being an enjoyable read, it's an educational one that reminds us how far we've come in terms of marriage and, perhaps, how similar we are to our Victorian ancestors.

Emily 'Fido' Faithfull encounters her old friend Helen Codrington on a busy London street after years apart. She finds herself drawn back into Helen's world and, much to her displeasure, finds herself involved in Helen's affair with a young army officer. Helen's husband Harry finally grasps what's going on and tries to divorce his wife - but Helen won't be silenced easily. Fido herself becomes integral to the outcome of the case.

The Sealed Letter utilises all three major viewpoints, although Fido is arguably the most important. The three protagonists are well-defined and explained, something which could've been difficult considering the historical context. First and foremost, this is an enjoyable novel, though the author's note at the end explained a lot of the detail around the case that I'd been wondering about as I progressed through. Donoghue uses the present tense, something I don't always find easy to deal with, but after a few pages the story took over and I barely noticed the tense. Her descriptions rival those of Slammerkin and are equally invocative - the foray of Fido and Helen into the Underground during their first reunion meeting feels so oppresive and vile, even to a reader with 150 years distance. I think that's one of the chief features of this novel: the immediacy of the present tense combines with the expert descriptions to create a Victorian England the reader does actually feel a part of.

Fido is one of those exceptional Victorian women, someone who prefers to work for her living than find a clergyman and settle down like her family wished her to. She is very involved with early women's movements which leads to cameos from people like Bessie Parkes and Emily Davies. Occasionally these scenes feel documentary-like, with characters speaking lines their real-life counterparts probably wouldn't have said because they were too obvious, but they serve a purpose. Helen is a twisted character, understandable in some areas of her life but deeply manipulative. Her reaction to her separation from her children is easily her most redeeming feature. Finally, Harry slowly shrinks in his own estimation as his married life becomes public knowledge. It's difficult to read about and I did eventually pity the man who was being manipulated by almost everyone around him.

Would I recommend this book? Absolutely. Read it if you like Victorian fiction, fictional accounts of real-life cases or intricate divorce proceedings. We're still as interested in the latter as the Victorians themselves were.

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