Reviewed by Sophie Gee
Sunday, November 16, 2008
THE SEALED LETTER
By Emma Donoghue
Harcourt. 397 pp. $26
The Sealed Letter is a Victorian romance and court-room drama based on a scandalous divorce case heard in London in 1864. The divorcing parties are Vice-Admiral Henry Codrington and his wife, Helen, who, during a seven-year posting in Malta, took as lovers several junior officers in Henry's regiment. The story opens when the Codringtons return to England (the adultery still a secret), and Helen meets an intimate friend from her past, Emily "Fido" Faithfull. She was a leading member of the British women's movement, proprietor of the Victoria Press and the publisher of the progressive English Woman's Journal and the Victoria Magazine. Emma Donoghue's triangle of real-life protagonists presents us with a quintessentially Victorian tableau: the lovely but fallen wife, the upstanding but severe husband and the repressed Bloomsbury bluestocking.
When Helen bumps into Fido on Farringdon Street one hot August afternoon, we learn that Fido lived with Helen and Henry seven years ago, and that Henry asked Fido to leave when his marriage started disintegrating. Now Fido refuses to abet Helen in her latest affair, and so she and her lover are forced to meet in public places, and things with Henry unravel. The saga builds to a shameful, luridly detailed divorce trial, which Donoghue reconstructs from contemporary reports in the Times and other papers.
Donoghue has written two other successful historical novels -- the critically acclaimed Life Mask and Slammerkin -- and it shows. She knows her way around a period drama. A ride on London's new underground railway, a visit to Fido's printing presses, descriptions of Victorian interiors, shops and streetscapes, all these details are absorbed into the narrative, and you barely notice they're there, except that mid-Victorian London feels so real you can almost taste it. You can certainly taste the vile tang of Fido's "Sweet Three" cigarettes, which she smokes alone in her bedroom: "The Turkish tobacco in its tube of yellow tissue smells sweetly spiced and nutty. . . . She draws the smoke deep into her raw lungs now, and feels her breathing ease at once." Solitary Female Pleasures, c. 1864.
Donoghue does lots of other things well, too. Helen and Fido are a study in contrasts, but she draws out their unlikely psychological parallels. Helen is trapped by marriage, devoid of occupation. Divorce, for her, is unthinkable: It requires proof of overt sexual betrayal, violence or neglect. To escape from a Victorian marriage, Donoghue suggests, is no escape at all. Fido has the ostensible freedom of the working woman: She is financially secure, intellectually respected, invulnerable to the indignities of dependence. But she is filled with longing -- for emotional intimacy and physical closeness -- which makes her behave in ways that are neither likeable nor entirely honest. The deep-seated social prejudice against a woman like Fido is almost as damning as the criticism of Helen's social crimes.
The title refers to a document that appears toward the end of the book: a sealed letter containing Henry Codrington's reflections on expelling Fido from his house seven years earlier. The letter aroused a storm of real-life curiosity and speculation when it was produced at the trial; Robert Browning gossiped to a friend that "the 'sealed letter' contained a charge I shall be excused from even hinting to you." The "charge," never explicit, is that Fido and Helen were lovers.
Donoghue is masterful in handling the theme of Fido's possible erotic desire for Helen and Helen's manipulation of same. She depicts female sexual attraction as a complex threat, both enthralling and taboo. In Victorian England, she suggests, female adulterers and lesbians were equally dangerous beings. This convincing, troubled account of marital politics reminds us that George Eliot began writing Middlemarch, a masterpiece of unhappy marriages, a few years after the Codrington case was heard.
Only one serious limitation encumbers The Sealed Letter: It's true. Donoghue builds the novel around the historical record skillfully and impressively, but history also constrains her ability to develop the characters and themes. This is the peril of writing "true" historical fiction, and in the end Donoghue's scruples take away from her powers as a novelist. Much as I admired the way she handled the constraints, I ended up wishing that she'd broken away from them to produce a freehand portrait of Victorian divorce, giving us villains and heroines to love and hate as much as real Victorian readers would have wanted. ·
Sophie Gee teaches English at Princeton and is the author of "The Scandal of the Season."