The Sealed Letter

Written by Emma Donoghue
Review by Ilysa Magnus

Based upon the events surrounding an actual, scandalous, and well-documented 1864 London divorce trial, Donoghue’s newest novel explores the disparate worlds of the newly emancipated working women of the Victorian age and the isolation and economic dependence of women trapped in loveless marriages.

Emily (Fido) Faithfull is an independent young businesswoman – cigarette-smoking and single, having sworn off marriage and, apparently, men. Her concern is her press and how to fund it, her goal to educate the public on the issues most relevant to women. By coincidence, she runs into her old friend, Helen Codrington, who is accompanied by a young military man, not her husband. The old friendship is rekindled, and Fido rediscovers long-buried feelings for Helen.

But as Fido later learns, she is merely another pawn in Helen’s chess game. Even after Helen uses Fido’s parlor for a sexual assignation with the young man, infuriating Fido, she remains unwilling to recognize how heartless and manipulative Helen can be – even to her purported best friend.

Helen’s husband finally accepts the fact that Helen is and has been unfaithful to him, and asks the Court for a divorce and full custody of the two children – who Helen is forbidden to see. During the buildup toward the trial, it is revealed that there is a sealed letter, the contents of which will only remain sealed if the proceedings successfully conclude for Henry Codrington. Although Donoghue never reveals what the content of that letter is, the insinuation is clear.

Donoghue beautifully captures the dilemma of women in a society whose very foundation is shifting like sand under their feet. Her characters are impeccably drawn, the plot fast-paced and engrossing. Fido Faithfull is finally faithful to herself, while Helen is a chimera and a sprite, her most basic instincts corrupted. Highly recommended.