Friday, 9 March 2012

Book Review: The Sealed Letter – Emma Donoghue (spoilers)

The talented author of Man Booker Prize nominee ‘Room’ has followed up with ‘The Sealed Letter’, a completely different creation of piquant Victoriana. It’s loosely based on the true scandal of the time involving the divorce case of Helen Codrington in 1864, one of the first women to attempt to counter claim in the divorce courts and her friend and founder of the feminist Langham Group and manager of the Victoria Press, Emily ‘Fido’ Faithfull.

Accusations of rape, cruelty, neglect and complacency reverberate with yet more countering claims of promiscuity, deceit and implied and later substantiated lesbianism; what more could you ask for? It reveals the hypocrisies of the time, the complete lack of power of any woman to gain access to her children following divorce, accounting cases of women ‘sent abroad’ under the unspoken shame of feminine madness (shades of Flaubert’s wonderful heroine Emma Bovary) and extricates the complications and intensities of female friendship and attraction between the plain and intelligent Fido and her glamorous, highly strung and manipulative Helen.

Donoghue has woven characters into the historical documenting of this marriage of the time, the union of a young pretty thing with an older military man and the added complication of a trusted female authority ‘Fido’, who at times concurrently reveals strength and weakness. Interestingly, my sympathies did lie with the husband Harry and Fido who seemed to lay bare in the aftermath of this ruthless bombshell right to the bitter end. Even after all her lies and vanities are exposed, they both tussle with a loyalty and deep felt affection bordering protection, Harry when he wants to shouts inwardly:

I was not a brute, and she was not a freak’ and even after Helen resorts to extortion claiming Fido was no better than her male escorts after their own ‘carnal knowledge’ of each other in their youth, poor Emily Fido Faithfull (what a name!) as she ejaculates:

‘ Oh Helen, Helen, Helen, the name like the wail of a gull. Love found and complicated and lost, found and destroyed again…’

The delicious melodrama circles in a whirlwind around one beautiful and selfish woman, a blank page and the claustrophobic grime of the London pea-souper as Fido gasps daily for breath in all the scandal. A layered interest for me is that you surprisingly feel outraged at the bias towards men in this era, while at the same time seeing Harry as a victim at the hands of a somewhat spirited young wife, albeit one then never really has a voice and is portrayed pretty much by Donoghue as would a tabloid newspaper…perhaps?

And something I love with historical stories, you can catch up on what happened to them once the story ended. Helen died relatively young and Fido went on to have two ‘devoted domestic partnerships’ and never went for a troublemaker again. 

Definitely worth reading and despite mixed reviews on Donoghue’s Victorian jaunt, I think it’s great she did something completely different to her million copy bestseller as it shows an admirable fearless approach to her writing.

Related Post:

Review of 'Room' by Emma Donoghue

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