'The Sealed Letter' by Emma Donoghue
Having read and reviewed 'Room' just over a year ago my sister sent me a copy of Emma Donoghue's latest book and I have been reading it over the last few weeks (interrupted by the arrival of library requests.) It is a testament to a good writer that she can move from 'Room' to this, they could not be more different in style or content. Not until I read the author's notes at the end did I realise it was based on real life events and real historical characters, with added poetic licence.
It is the story of a marriage and a divorce, the story of the suffragette movement, the story of Victorian society, but mostly the story of friendship and an unspoken love. Emily Faithfull, also known as Fido, is a leading light in the burgeoning women's movement, an independent woman running her own printing business, challenging social norms and employing women in skilled jobs, but her long standing and abruptly rekindled friendship with Helen Codrington is about to bring the censure of society down on her. She becomes unwittingly embroiled in events that lead to the Codrington's divorce and is forced to appear in what seemed to me like a travesty of a trial.
I could not help but dislike Helen Codrington. I felt not one ounce of pity for her. You start off thinking she is merely shallow and self-centred. Having been abroad for some years with her husband she apparently bumps into Fido in the street where she works, and proceeds to involve her former friend in her sordid affair. How naive am I that I didn't see until the end that of course Fido is totally besotted with Helen, and that is why she allows herself to be duped into thinking that she is needed as a friend rather than merely being taken advantage of. Helen is just the kind of character that you love to hate, self-seeking and manipulative, utterly immoral and uncaring of the consequences of her actions on others. Fido I felt pity for, even though she was naive and stupid, striving to believe the best of Helen despite evidence to the contrary. But I disliked her husband Henry just as much, they deserved each other, and if I had been the judge I would have left them to stew in their own juices. The hypocrisy of Victorian England is superbly portrayed; morally censorious in one breath and then lapping up the salacious details of the case at the same time. It is a drama in the true sense of the word and once the wheels of the court are set in motion all the players are victims, as the lawyers trade insults and counter accusations; no one comes out of the situation with their dignity intact.
Your whole sense of what is right just rises up against the attitudes expressed and accepted as the norm in this story, and you can appreciate the efforts made by the women's movement that grew up at that time, and what an uphill struggle they must have endured. Anyway, a great story, mainly it leaves you glad that we have moved on from the confining double standard of victorian morality and attitudes towards women.