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The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue

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Telynor
Bibliophile
Location: On the Banks of the Hudson

The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue

Postby Telynor » Mon September 1st, 2008, 9:56 pm

This summer seems to be a time of novels for me. There's been a particular abundance of riches where historical settings have become popular again, and I have been eagerly reading my way along. Today's choice was a vivid, insightful story built around a Victorian scandal -- the divorce.

Nowadays, a divorce hardly seems to cause a ripple in our society, but in the nineteenth century, a divorce was a very public, very messy, and unpleasant experience. In her new novel, The Sealed Letter, author Emma Donoghue explores the impact of such a decision on one middle class family, through the eyes of the husband and wife, and their friend, Emily Faithfull.

Nicknamed 'Fido' as much for her character as her last name, Fido meets up with an old friend suddenly in a London street. It's been more than seven years since she's seen Helen Codrington, and in all that time Fido hasn't seen any communications from her. It's more than a surprise for Fido, it's a shock to see her old friend.

Helen hasn't changed a bit. Away with her husband in Malta, Helen is still the gay, charming woman that she has always been. She claims that she never recieved any of the letters that Fido has sent, blaming it on the wretched postal system of that distant island. And she seems to be eager to resume her friendship with Fido. Despite her misgivings Fido is glad to resume that friendship as well.

For Fido is unusual among women in Victorian London. She has remained single, working in the Cause of equal rights and opportunities for women in both the home and workplace. She has set up her own printing business, The Victoria Press, and has even been granted the distinction of a royal warrant.

Finally, there is Helen's husband, Henry Codrington, an admiral in the British navy. He's served with distinction in the Fleet, and now has been rotated home to a desk job. While he's chafing at not being able to serve aboard a ship, he's trying to make the best of it.

Through the thoughts, actions and letters of these three, the reader gets to have an intimate view of a Victorian marriage, where husband and wife were restricted by social norms, intimacy was rare, and especially reputation was considered important. Women had few rights, and many seem to be content with their lot, spending their days in social calls, raising their children, and charitable work. For Helen, her days are frivolous, spending too much money, avoiding her husband, and making attempts to be a mother to her two daughters. She makes choices that are impulsive at best, and one is about to bring her comfortable world to an end.

I don't want to reveal much more. I have to say that Donoghue's writing is wonderfully evocative of the period, filled with details of life for the well-to-do, the customs of the time, and most of all, the minds of three people in a very complicated relationship. All three of them are given very distinct voices and motivations and I found their story to be both compelling and heartbreaking. The author does what very few can manage -- make you both sympathetic to the plight they are in, and at the same time make you cringe at what they do and say.

Helen in particular is a very conflicted character, with behavior that infuriated me at times, and while I couldn't look away from the impeding doom, I did keep hoping that some sort of miracle would happen. As for Fido, she is an unusual heroine, very different than most subjects of historical fiction being not at all pretty, not looking for a life-partner, and having determination to find her own future -- on her terms.

There is one glaring error in this book, and as it is a technical one, not one in style or narrative, it's a minor one. The typeface used for the letters in the story is a very difficult one to read at first, rendered in a flowing, cursive font, with plenty of flourishes. Very pretty perhaps, and a nice conceit, but very hard to read at first.

For those readers who want to read something that focuses on a story that is revealing and entertaining, this is an excellent story. The author has an afterword that discloses a surprise, and one that I won't spoil -- you'll just have to find out for yourself.

Emma Donoghue has also written two other novels:
http://www.epinions.com/content_210226613892 Slammerkin -- http://www.epinions.com/user-heidifromoz review
http://www.epinions.com/content_177424141956 Life Mask

Five stars overall. Highly recommended.

The Sealed Letter
Emma Donoghue
2008; HarperCollins Publishers
ISBN 978-1-55468-036-8

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