Charlotte Moore

The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue

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The Sealed Letter

Emma Donoghue

Picador, pp. 398, £

Emily ‘Fido’ Faithfull, a stout, plain, clever Victorian, founder-member of the feminist Langham Place group, manager of the ground-breaking Victoria Press which extends employment possibilities for women, has her story lightly fictionalised in The Sealed Letter. The action starts with the return from a posting to Malta of Fido’s erstwhile best friend, Helen Codrington, a naval wife with a yellow-whiskered colonel in tow. Helen needs an alibi and a trysting-place; the apparently guileless Fido and her drawing-room sofa will do nicely.

Before Malta, Fido had lived with Helen and her older, straitlaced husband Harry. Fido’s asthma had been the pretext for Helen to leave the marital chamber and curl up in her friend’s bed each night.

What confidences did the two women exchange? Harry, at last, politely ejected Fido from his household, and the friendship lapsed.

Harry becomes a Vice-Admiral, but, emasculated by the fame of his father, a hero of Trafalgar, as well as by Helen’s increasingly flagrant behaviour, he snaps, and files for divorce. In 1864 this is a rare and messy procedure. Fido, the crucial witness, is sucked into a mire that isolates her from her feminist friends and threatens her career.

The publisher’s strapline promises a ‘delicious tale’, but Emma Donoghue rightly avoids deliciousness. Her London is a muddy, foggy, unwholesome place, with the court room (as in Bleak House) its dirty centre, tainting all who pass through. Helen’s lurid emerald and magenta frocks, her siren’s red hair and sapphire eyes, stand out in sickly contrast in this dark brown world. The Codringtons’ two little daughters, obligingly erecting a symbolic house of cards like the girls in Augustus Egg’s 1858 morality painting ‘Past and Present’, look on, half comprehending, as their parents’ marriage collapses.

Donoghue captures this suffocating mid-Victorian atmosphere successfully — poor Fido literally gasps for breath. However, she doesn’t avoid all the pitfalls of writing historical fiction. The plot hinges on Helen’s ability to entrance both men and women, but to the reader she just seems horrible, and unreal, stitched together from too many Victorian scraps. She even utters Queen Victoria’s verdict on the gruesomeness of newborn babies with their ‘terrible frog-like action’ as if it were her own — it’s a good line, and I can see why Donoghue didn’t want to waste it, but Helen never develops a voice of her own.

Harry and Fido are stronger recreations. Donoghue’s use of the sealed letter of the title (a real document, its contents never disclosed) is clever, and she’s excellent on the way truth and loyalty turn to quicksand once the legal system gets to work — excellent, in other words, when she allows herself to be a novelist, not a social historian.

First published in Canada in 2008, The Sealed Letter isn’t really the follow-up to Donoghue’s hugely successful Room. It shows a writer who has not quite made the imaginative leap she seems to have managed in the later book. There are infelicitous anachronisms — ‘deb’, ‘cold turkey’, ‘she owes me!’ — but even more grating is her habit of using her characters’ voices to supply jerky historical information. The journalist Bessie Parkes has to tell the reader, via Fido, that George Eliot is ‘famous not only for her novels but for acting on the highest principle’; Harry Codrington has no sooner knocked on the door of Langham Place than he is told all about the Social Science Association and the results of the first female entrants for the Cambridge Local Examinations.

The Langham Place women were an interesting lot; I’m particularly glad to meet them in a novel, because my great-great-great aunt Barbara Bodichon was one of them. So I’m grateful to Donoghue for choosing this subject, though she doesn’t give Fido’s feminist associates enough space to become much more than a list of names. Fido herself, who ‘can only follow her nature, which is to hold, to save, to love’, exists in three dimensions, and we do care about her.