Scandalous charges, shocking countercharges, stained dresses,
sealed letters --- these are the stuff of 20th-century sex scandals
like the Clinton/Lewinsky affair, right? Not so, proves Emma
Donoghue in THE SEALED LETTER, a novel set in the Victorian era,
centered on a highly publicized divorce case that ruined lives and
riveted an entire country.
The book’s central character is Emily Faithfull, nicknamed
Fido. An enlightened preacher's daughter who supports herself
through her printing business, Fido is at the forefront of the
burgeoning movement for women's rights in England. But all her
success, not to mention her reputation, is put at risk when Fido's
oldest friend, Helen Codrington, returns to London from her
husband's posting in Malta.
Helen, with her fashionable style, good looks and flirtatious
personality, seems like an unlikely friend for plain Fido, but the
two are exceptionally close; before they left for Malta, Helen and
her husband even invited Fido to live with them for a time.
Reigniting their old friendship after years of separation, however,
soon proves to be a challenge. More often than not, Helen is
accompanied by a dashing military officer, and the two even use
Fido's own house for their assignations, much to Fido's
embarrassment and disgust.
When Helen's husband becomes increasingly suspicious of his
wife's associations (especially when she fails to respond to an
urgent telegram sent to Fido's home), he initiates divorce
proceedings. Helen, who is at a great disadvantage in the legal
case, enlists Fido to provide evidence --- of an incident she
doesn't even remember. As the case proceeds, Fido's entire
professional career --- not to mention her relationship with Helen
and her opinion of herself --- threatens to unravel.
At the center of THE SEALED LETTER is a tense, revelation-filled
courtroom scene, with unreliable witnesses, questionable testimony
and outright lies. Just like today, the media has a field day with
the evidence, providing readers with as many titillating details as
they're able to print. In addition to providing an in-depth
portrayal of the 19th-century legal system, the novel (and
especially the sealed letter of the title) also raises interesting
points about the psychological complexities that lie beneath many
THE SEALED LETTER offers readers a fascinating exploration of
Victorian culture and society, from the (negligible) rights of
women to arcane divorce laws to attitudes about sex and sexuality.
Readers shouldn't miss Donoghue's extensive author's note, which
explains the historical background of the novel. However, this book
is far more than simply a rundown of Victorian legalities and
mores; instead, it is a perceptive, and at times poignant,
exploration of Fido's attempts to balance her identity as an
independent woman, a model to her generation, with her rapidly
eroding love and trust for her friend, Helen. Donoghue manages to
place Fido's story firmly in history without losing any of its
emotional resonance and power.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 23, 2011
The Sealed Letter