Book Review: The Sealed Letter

The Sealed Letter

Emma Donoghue

Mariner Books

416 pages

Helen Codrington and Emily “Fido” Faithfull are the best of friends.  They’ve certainly had ups and downs in their friendship, but who hasn’t? Helen has been away in Malta for seven years when she returns in 1864 and runs into Fido in England .  The two pick up right where they left off and quickly become close again.  Fido is well aware that Helen’s marriage to Admiral Codrington was on rocky territory when she last saw the couple in 1857, but she is hopeful that they have turned over a new leaf.  Oh, how wrong she was!

Fido soon discovers that not only has the marriage not improved, but Helen has started behaving in a licentious way.  She is having an affair with one of her husband’s colleagues and goes so far as to have relations with him in Fido’s own home.  Fido has long been for the rights of women, especially when it comes to the idea of women having gainful employment.  She owns a press that runs a women’s magazine and thus seems to be someone ahead of the fold.  However, when it comes to real life, Fido is pretty innocent and naïve.  She is shocked at Helen’s behavior but is quick to believe all of the rigmarole and excuses that Helen tosses to her left and right.  Helen’s husband, the Admiral Codrington, is a tad brighter than Fido however, and he begins to see Helen for the master manipulator that she is.

Admiral Codrington catches Helen in a lie one night, and instantly his suspicion is alight.  He has someone follow her for days in the hopes of discovering whether or not she has retained her virtue.  As I am sure you can imagine, he hits pay dirt.  Enter one of the more notorious divorce trials of the Victorian era.  Once the Admiral discovers the siren ways of his wife, he wants a divorce.  It’s not that easy in Victorian England though.  While the man obviously has the upper hand, he has to prove his wife’s ills without himself being guilty of causing her behavior.  If the Admiral can convince the jury that Helen behaved the way she did through no fault of his own, he would be granted a divorce and never have to pay Helen a dime, nor let her see their two daughters.  Should it be found that his actions did, at least somewhat, warrants Helen’s behavior, then they would only be granted a legal separation.  Obviously the latter is much more beneficial to Helen, and she sets about doing whatever she can to ensure that her husband will not be 

Fido gets caught in the middle of the warring couple and is forced to discover that her true friend may not be the person Fido originally thought she was.

I finished this book in bed one night.  I was tired and should have fallen fast asleep the second my eyes closed, but I could not stop thinking about this book.  It was such a catch-22.  I loathed Helen.  It would be impossible not to.  She willingly steps all over anyone she can in order to get what she wants.  She knows Fido is a faithful friend, and she uses that to her best advantage.  And yet . . . maybe Helen has no other choice.  Is she not just a product of her times?  She has absolutely no options open to her.  She’s unhappy in her marriage and seeks contentment elsewhere.  For that, she is cut off from her lifestyle and children forever.  It seems grossly unfair to me.  That being said, she put herself in an even worse position by casting out everyone that loved and cared for her.  Even her husband wasn’t a bad guy.  So as you can see, either way Helen was damned.  That doesn’t excuse her behavior, but maybe it mitigates it just a little.

The Sealed Letter is based on a true story.  Donoghue did a fantastic job weaving fact and fiction together.  It can be difficult to tell a true story while still injecting enough fiction into it to interest the reader.  In comparing this book to another book of the same nature, 31 Bond Street , by Ellen Horan, Donoghue’s effort is much greater and more successful.  I just felt that she used every scrap of truth when possible, and I really appreciate that.

If you’re a fan of Victorian based literature, you must check out Donoghue.  She reminds me a bit of Sarah Waters and the other book I’ve read of hers, Slammerkin, is exceptional.  I can’t wait now to read Room!

Other Reviews:

A Bookworm’s World

So Many Books, So Little Time

Tiny Little Reading Room

I bought this book, most likely from Barnes & Noble, although I can’t be 100% sure.

This book counts towards the Women Unbound Challenge.  Given that it won the 2009 Lambda Literary Award for best lesbian fiction, I suppose it also counts towards the GLBT challenge.



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11 Responses

  1. I’d never even heard of Donaghue until Room came out this summer, and now I’m dying to read tons of her work!

  2. Uh oh. One more reason I am looking forward to reading Room.

  3. I don’t think I realized that Donaghue had written other fiction, so thanks for disabusing me of that notion. Maybe as I wait for the queues to die down for room I should check out some of her back catalog; this sounds fantastic!

  4. After utterly adoring Room, I’m eager to read more Donoghue, even though I know her previous fiction is quite different. I bought this one for my Kindle and am looking forward to reading it, so I’m thrilled to see you loved it! I’ve heard great things about Slammerkin too.

  5. I really need to read something by Donoghue soon! I keep reading reviews of her books and they all sound wonderful. I’ll probably start with Room but this one sounds great too.

  6. Sounds fantastic! Anyone that reminds you of Sarah Waters sounds good to me. On a side note, I love the word licentious, and it was lovely to see it in your review. 🙂

  7. You made a great case for this book!!! And I’ve heard nothing but praise for “Room” and even remember hearing good things about “Slammerkin” a few years back. Excellent review!

  8. I keep forgetting that Donoghue has written a third book! And I agree, Slammerkin was a bit reminiscent of Sarah Waters…but still an excellent book in its own right.

  9. What a trip! Helen seems like one… interesting woman. I feel as though I might get too angry with her to make it through the book!

  10. I haven’t read anything by Donoghue but your review has made me think she definitely needs to be added to my tbr list. I do love books set in victorian times.

  11. […] The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue was reviewed at Reviews By Lola. […]

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