When I first searched the library for The Sealed Letter, a book a friend had recommended, I found it checked out and settled for Slammerkin (May 11, ’09). Quite a good book in itself, but this one is heads and shoulders better.
Judging from these two works, Donoghue specializes in a unique type of historical novel, a sort of ripped from yesteryear’s headlines incidents covered in the popular press but not necessarily connected with any great historical event. In the case of The Sealed Letter, she sets us down in 1864 London amid the scandalous divorce case of Helen and (Admiral) Harry Codrington. Unlike the case of the Slammerkin murderess, however, this divorce connects directly with a number of important social and legal issues that reverberate still.
The whole idea of divorce in English law had been changed by an 1857 law that allowed women as well as men to sue for divorce, though it still provided precious little freedom or property to the wife. At issue for the Codrington’s was the wife’s adultery. At issue for the reader is the manner and extent to which the adulteress pulls our protagonist, Fido Faithfull, unwillingly and unwittingly into her intrigues.
Faithfull is a prominent feminist. She publishes a periodical dedicated to women’s causes and works to find and create employment and education for females so they can lead independent lives. This is true in history as well as in fiction. Donoghue portrays this Vicar’s youngest daughter as highly unconventional in her social and business ideals and lifestyle, but entirely conventional in her notions of sex and marriage, except in matters of women’s property rights, of course.
Thus, she is stalwart in opposing and refusing to aid in her close friend’s attempts to help facilitate her affair. Nevertheless, her affection for the unscrupulous woman blinds her to certain lies and manipulations that nevertheless involve her in the deceptive couple’s machinations. Her involvement, in turn, pulls her into the legal maneuvering when the case comes to trial and endangers not only her personal well-being but that of her crusade.
Donoghue crafts all of this so cunningly that I wonder the book hasn’t received more notoriety than it has. Just his little snippet-glimpse at the relationship between Fido and her friend, Helen:
What in another woman would strike Fido as hyperbole has in Helen Codrington always charmed her somehow. The phrases re delivered with a sort of rueful merriment, a if by an actress who knows herself to be better than her part.
And Donoghue doesn’t just tell us about this skillful maneuvering on Helen’s part, she shows in conversation and deed how true and consistent the character does just what she describes here. Similarly in Slammerkin, she gives us a sly and manipulative woman skillful and deceit to get her way.
Only one thing keeps me from honoring The Sealed Letter with the little man jumping out of his chair. It’s a pet peeve of authorial technique that seems to bother me more than most, but I abhor it enough to withhold my highest recommendation of an otherwise excellent book because of it. Donoghue withholds an essential piece of information from us readers until the very end. We’ve spent a great deal of time inside the minds of the characters involved, and it’s not credible that they would not have mentioned it at least to themselves during all the in’s and out’s of the intimate events and conversations. Furthermore, withholding the information created, at least for me, an entirely false impression of an important relationship in the book. The excuse the author puts in the protagonist’s mouth for not speaking of it earlier is lame. The only reason for keeping us thus in the dark is to deliver a shock at the book’s conclusion. I wasn’t shocked, just angry. It would have enhanced, not spoiled the story to have known of it earlier.
Despite all that, Donoghue deserves high accolades (though not the highest) for her achievement in The Sealed Letter, and despite all that, I will read another Donoghue.