The Sealed Letter
By Emma Donoghue
Completed April 3, 2012
Based on the real-life divorce scandal that rocked Victorian England, The Sealed Letter is an action-packed look into the plight of women’s rights and the scandals of terminating a marriage. If you ever wondered how difficult it was to obtain a divorce during the Victorian era, The Sealed Letter will answer your questions.
The story opens with a chance meeting between two old friends – Emily “Fido” Faithfull, a women’s rights activist, and Helen Codrington, a naval wife. As the two become reacquainted, Fido realizes Helen is miserable in her marriage and has wandering eyes. Helen tells Fido about how neglectful her husband, Harry, is to her, and as the story progresses, the inevitable happens: Helen and Harry separate, and Harry wants a divorce.
Most Victorian couples who wanted to part ways didn’t typically pursue divorces. Instead, they made civil and financial arrangements that kept them in separate households. While this is the avenue Helen would have preferred, Harry was out for revenge and willing to risk his reputation for a courtroom drama that would keep London hanging on to its every movement. For me, the courtroom scenes of The Sealed Letter were brilliantly done – a true page-turning saga that epitomized the imbalance of justice between husband and wife. Because Helen was accused of adultery, the lawyers got their chance to talk about sex in discreet terms. It was like listening to 7th graders banter in the boys’ locker room. Parts of it were immature; other parts, were hilarious.
What wasn’t funny, though, was the misery inflicted upon many characters, including Harry and Fido, as this personal matter became a very public affair. Divorce was nasty business then – and for many couples, it remains tumultuous to this day. Thankfully, women’s rights as wives have improved since then, but the fact remains that dissolving a marriage is hard on everyone involved. The Sealed Letter hits the head on this nail – repeatedly and effectively.
I liked The Sealed Letter for its historical look on women’s rights, marriage and divorce during Victorian England. Truth be told, I wasn’t thrilled with the characters, especially Helen, who was manipulative and cruel. I don’t have to like the characters, though, to appreciate a good story, and that’s certainly the case with The Sealed Letter. Emma Donoghue is an excellent storyteller, and I think most fans of literary fiction will find value in this moving story. ( )