Saturday 19 August 2017

Review: Fiction: The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue

Picador, £16.99

Success: Emma
Donoghue is
currently working
on a new novel in
the south of France
Success: Emma Donoghue is currently working on a new novel in the south of France

Two weeks ago, according to Emma Donoghue's Facebook page, sales of her best-selling novel Room reached one million copies.

"Who'd have thought that so many readers would be willing to spend so much time trapped in the head of a five-year-old," she asks in wonder.

The book has become a phenomenon, published around the world and translated into too many languages to list (including Chinese and Thai).

To say there is an appetite out there for her next novel is something of an understatement. But she is taking her time.

She is currently away from home in Canada and living in the south of France for a year to work on the new novel (it's a hard life, she says). Her publishers, Picador, meanwhile, have decided not to wait and have just released her 2008 Victorian divorce-scandal novel, The Sealed Letter, in the UK and Ireland. Up to now it has been published only in the US and Canada.

John Spain

'Gossip is charming! History is merely gossip. But scandal is gossip made tedious by morality." As poor Oscar Wilde discovered to his cost, his fellow Victorians could happily gloat over a scandal for years without any hint of tedium.

One such scandal that shocked England in the 1860s was the Codrington divorce, on which The Sealed Letter is based -- an affair so juicy it contained accusations of infidelity, rape and lesbianism.

A chance meeting on a London thoroughfare between two friends who have not seen each another for years sparks off the action. Unmarried Emily 'Fido' Faithfull is a businesswoman who runs a printing press for the British Women's Rights movement.

Flighty Helen Codrington is imprisoned in a loveless marriage to an ageing vice-admiral. Helen introduces handsome Colonel Anderson as "a friend of the family". Anderson turns out to be very friendly indeed.

Less than a week later, Helen and the Colonel pay Fido a visit. Eavesdropping, Fido hears "the frantic squeak of sofa springs as they're forced up and down" behind her drawing room door. Fido bears this affront with doglike passivity. Gradually and reluctantly, she becomes embroiled in Helen's affairs.

Meanwhile, the vice-admiral cuckold paces the floor of his drawing room. Why has Helen not replied to the telegram he sent to Fido's house informing her of her daughter's grave illness?

The ailing girl survives but the Codrington marriage painfully and publicly expires. A tortuous courtroom drama is about to begin, into which Fido is unwillingly dragged.

Donoghue has obviously done an enormous amount of research into the sexual mores and embryonic "womanist" movement of the mid-Victorian era. The reader is presented with an appallingly accurate picture of women's rights -- or lack of them -- after the 1857 Divorce Act: the husband had only to prove his wife was adulterous, but the wife had to prove her husband was incestuous, bigamous, cruel or neglectful.

The author interlaces hard-hitting historical fact and imaginative fiction into the narrative with a deft and breezy touch: the reader can almost hear the characters' voices long after closing the book.

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