The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue

Donoghue, Emma - The Sealed Letter

Brad Pitt and Jennifer Anniston, Paul McCartney and Heather Mills, Hugh Grant and Liz Hurley – how many column inches did their break-ups generate, I wonder?  Dishing the dirt when a high profile relationship bites the dust sells newspapers; that’s nothing new, it seems.

Chances are you’ll have heard about (if not read) Emma Donoghue’s Booker shortlisted novel Room, which takes its inspiration from the infamous Fritzl case.  This earlier novel, The Sealed Letter, is likewise inspired by a real-life drama: the sensational Codrington divorce case.

It’s 1864.  Emily ‘Fido’ Faithfull, is a businesswomen, writer and women’s rights pioneer.  Outside her printing office she bumps into former friend Helen Codrington.

Pretty, flirtatious Helen and plain, serious Fido, both reject their society’s norms, though in very different ways.  Fido, a single, working woman with her own household, openly challenges the patriarchal system, a living embodiment of the belief that “every woman should be free to support herself by the use of whatever faculties God has given her.”  Helen, brought up in India and Italy, is characterised as an outsider who “always walzed her way around the rules of womanhood”.

The women first met ten years previously when Fido stumbled on Helen on a beach crying about the “fact” of her husband, Vice-Admiral Harry Codrington.  They last met seven years ago when Harry was posted to Malta.  His posting there has ended and the Codringtons are back in London.  Tellingly, though, Helen is not with Harry but with “a friend of the family’s from Malta” Colonel David Anderson.

The women revive their old friendship. Helen’s marriage soon reaches crisis point when Harry guesses at her adultery and starts divorce proceedings.  Fido finds herself embroiled in the scandal, a reluctant witness in their high profile, salacious divorce case.

The chapter titles are legal terms, “prima facie,” “feme covert,” “reasonable suspicion,” – with definitions – so we’re in the mindset of a legal case from the start. Each chapter starts with a contemporaneous quotation, from Anthony Trollope, Mrs Beeton, John Ruskin, Robert Browning, and others, which serve to give a flavour of the times.  The quotes also create an implied link between the legal process and entertainment.  The link is made explicit as the novel progresses, particularly when Harry’s barrister, inspired by Poe’s “The Purloined Letter”, comes up with the idea of the “sealed letter”.

This mysterious letter, produced in court but not opened, is said to contain Harry’s concerns about the nature of Fido and Helen’s relationship just before his Malta posting, when Fido was living with the Codringtons and sharing a bed with Helen.  The attendant insinuation and speculation threatens to destroy Fido’s reputation, business, campaigning work, health, the entire life she has built for herself.

This is a wonderful book, beautifully written. A real-life human-interest story, it also offers a fascinating insight into social history.

**** One of the best books I’ve read this year

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