The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue

31st Jan 2012


Set in the 1860s, The Sealed Letter explores the real-life scandal of a divorce trial that got the nation talking, focussing on the reluctant involvement of willfully independent feminist Emily Faithful, (affectionately named Fido throughout) and her relationship with the seemingly less-than-faithful half of the marriage, Helen Smith Codrington.

Once you’ve read this novel, it won’t surprise you to learn that Emma Donoghue is not just a novelist but also a literary historian: her extensive research and use of actual letters written by the real-life characters produce a book that has exquisitely well-placed tone and deliciously accurate Victorian turns-of-phrase, all of which add to the vibrant realism of the story.

Within a few pages I was craving silk skirts, lace, and dainty gloves. However, this isn’t just a book of propriety and Dickensian customs: bubbling under the airs and graces is the fierce current of female progress.

Donoghue portrays the feminist themes without sounding preachy, and the first hundred pages or so are infused with frankly inspirational ideas, but it’s the way she explores the Women’s Movement’s reaction to Fido’s involvement in the trial that really makes things interesting.

Despite the huge obstacles they face, these women still retain a frustratingly counter-productive cattiness and don’t appear able to stand together when there’s even a whiff of a scandal.

Although the pacing isn’t always spot-on, from the moment the trial begins this novel is fiercely compelling until its finish. What interested me most about the trial in particular is the use of different viewpoints: we see the ugliness of divorce proceedings through the eyes of Fido, Helen Codrington, and also her husband Harry, but without Donoghue resorting to an overly structured ‘different sides to the story’ approach.

That said, as the story progresses I do question whether Helen’s character is somewhat bitchified a little too fervently in parts: she verges on two-dimensionally spoilt and manipulative more than once, whereas Fido may be annoyingly naïve but her edges are rather rounder.

I’ve probably waxed lyrical about this book for long enough, but I must confess it combines two of my favourite elements – gender theory and a nineteenth century atmosphere – and does so exceptionally well.

That said, despite the book being joint winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction in 2009, I was surprised by how subtly the subject was treated.

This is no Sarah Waters job – much like the custom of the time, while we are aware of Miss Faithful’s feelings throughout, they are never really named.

The ‘sealed letter’ is the perfect motif for this book, and it left me feeling frustrated at the way Fido seems backed into a corner, gagged by fear. Like the plight of women, in terms of gay rights, the picture painted in The Sealed Letter leaves you feeling that 150 years seems an awful lot longer ago.

Set to be published in paperback by Picador on February 2nd for £4.87, you can already grab the hardcover for £9 if you can’t wait that long.

Rating: 4/5

Recommended for: Feminists big and small, queer theory enthusiasts, gossip-lovers, those as enamoured by Victorian propriety as me, and – to be quite honest – divorcees. You’ll probably count yourself lucky by the time you’ve read the trial.

Other recommended reading: In terms of style and themes, Sarah Waters Fingersmith deals with things a little more bluntly but definitely in a comparable fashion. Alternatively, delve deep into the mystery and romance of Deanna Raybourn’s Dark Road to Darjeeling.

Laura Vickers


  • Jane Bradley says:

    Thanks for this brilliant review, Laura, I knew Emma Donoghue knew her stuff when it came to queer and feminist history, but I didn’t know she’d ever incorporated it into her fiction.

    Sounds like this one was long overdue a UK publisher, can’t wait to get my mitts on a copy!

  • Cariad Martin says:

    This sounds wicked. I’m not normally one for historical fiction but the feminist/queer theory makes it more appealing. I’ll keep an eye out for it.

  • Carol Attenborrow says:

    Did not like this book and was reluctant to read Room. However, Room surprised me because of the quality of thought that went into writing Room. The book is still with me.