The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue
Emma Donoghue’s latest novel The Sealed Letter has been eagerly anticipated following the resounding success of her previous book Room which was nominated for both the Booker and Orange Prizes. However it may not be what the readers of Room are expecting- whilst Room has a contemporary setting, and deals with the story of a woman who has been imprisoned, raped and abused, told from the perspective of a young boy – in The Sealed Letter Donoghue uses a Victorian setting and bases the plot on two friends, the women’s movement and a scandalous divorce hearing. However there are similarities; both novels are based on true events, The Sealed Letter on the Codrington vs Codrington case, which may have had influence on changes in divorce law some years later.
The novel centres on the relationship between Emily (Fido) Faithful, a leading figure in the women’s movement and Helen Codrington, the accused adulteress. At the opening of the novel a chance meeting (which we later learn was engineered by Helen) brings the women back together after seven years. Helen has been in Malta where her husband Admiral Codrington was stationed, and suggests to Fido that all her letters were lost in the post, an excuse which Fido innocently accepts. We learn that the women were previously close friends, that they shared a bed when Helen stopped sleeping with her husband years before, and that Fido is much younger, and more naïve than Helen. Fido is also infatuated with Helen, and has never had feelings for a man.
When they are reunited Fido is busy working for the women’s movement, running the printing press and writing. Helen quickly regains Fido’s interest in her and uses her as a cover for her meetings with Colonel Anderson, her lover. As Helen’s husband starts to suspect her betrayal, he employs a spy to follow her. When Codrington finds out that his wife has been having an affair, he files for divorce, and during the proceedings a web of scandal, gossip and lies is unleashed on both sides. At the advice of his solicitor Codrington writes ‘The Sealed Letter’ which bears details of alleged improper relations between the two women and places it into his brothers’ safe keeping, the document is false and is never opened in court, however stresses the lengths Codrington is willing to go to to damn his wife.
The Sealed Letter is a novel about misplaced loyalties. Fido is blindly loyal to Helen, ignoring her obvious selfish behaviour, and would rather believe her fantasies of a life with her after the divorce is settled. Helen’s loyalty is also betrayed by Colonel Anderson whom she believes loves her, but leaves as soon as there are signs of trouble, and marries a cousin in Scotland leaving her broken-hearted. The divorce hearing makes Fido question her faith in the women’s movement as Helen’s behaviour makes her realise the lengths some women will go to when given independence from their husbands.
The Sealed Letter is a novel about female friendship & loyalty, their relationships with men and their fight for independence. What is also interesting is its immersion in the literary sphere. Fido makes her living as a writer and editor, the women gossip about the latest Dickensian novels (as well as his private life), and the novel has the air of both a penny dreadful and a romance. The influence of Dickens, Collins & Austen are both obvious and alluded to. This is a novel at once fully submerged within its setting and self-consciously reflective of the period in which it is set.