Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue

Originally posted Apr. 22, 2008
Great book! I thoroughly enjoyed this one.

I feel like I’ve been let in on a bunch of gossip that’s turned out to be mostly true. Emma Donoghue has written a story around a historic Victorian era divorce case. This is no ordinary lightweight frivolity, this is full-bodied passion. Ms. Donoghue has done a great deal of research into the case, which smacks of realism and is in fact often closely worded to the actual trial. But her research does not direct itself exclusively to the trial and what went before, but has done an in depth study of Victorian mores, the rights (and lack) of the Victorian wife, the fledgling women’s rights movements and the backgrounds of the real people involved.

This book is very well written, I admit to checking a couple of times whether I was reading fiction or non-fiction. The flow was such that I had trouble putting the book down. This is the story of Helen (the respondent in the trial) who is married to a much older man Harry Codrington, staid and totally English and an Admiral of the Navy, whereas Helen herself was born in India and brought up there as well as in Italy. She is used to walking out with a male companion on her arm in Italy, where this is an acceptable practice. The couple made their home with their two little girls in England, but the Admiral is often away and Helen has become very close to her good friend “Fido”(Emily Faithfull” to the point that she invites her to come for an extended stay in their home. However, when the Admiral is reassigned to his next station, Malta, he persuades Helen to accompany him. This is the background for the story, and the reader comes into it on their return to England.

In the years Helen is away, Fido has made a name for herself in the fight for women’s rights and also as a major member of a printing company for women. The two friends meet by chance on the street soon after the Codringtons return to England and become good friends again. Remembering that this is really the beginning of the book, the plot moves along quickly and smoothly and becomes more convoluted as it goes along. There is everything here. Misconceptions, misunderstandings, mismatched marriage and the eventual results of such. The gathering of evidence and the trial take up almost half the book. There are snippets of letters throughout the book, hints and surprises. We have naive Fido, frivolous Helen, and stodgy but trusting Harry, as well as interfering do-gooders to put it mildly. Excitement, passion, humiliation, blackmail, and all in this fictionalized version of, from the back of the book “...a scandalous divorce case that gripped England in 1864.” and “...explodes into a courtroom drama muckier than any Hollywood tabloid could invent...”. My heart went out to Fido, but in the end there is a lingering question.

I very much liked the format of the book, and learned a lot from the Author’s Note in the back, explaining her research and updating what became of many of the characters. This book was a real winner.

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