The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue is a fictionalized biography of 19th century publisher and feminist Emily Faithful (nicknamed “Fido”) and the part she played in the scandalous divorce trial of her close friend Helen Codrington. Fido is torn between the blind, yearning devotion she has for her friend and Helen’s betrayal in using her as a smokescreen for an adulterous affair–as well as a deeper, even more hurtful betrayal that Fido scarcely dares to name even to herself.
Emily Faithful is a very real, flawed human being. We can wince at her uncompromising idealism while cheering on her lofty feminist ideals. And we can see how desperately she wants to believe the best of those around her and allows that desire to lead her into an impossible conflict. Helen is much harder to empathize with, so it’s good that we aren’t asked to cheer her on as a romantic protagonist. She’s impulsive, self-centered, and manipulative and her main claim on our sympathy is recognizing the impossible position in which a woman in an unhappy marriage found herself in 19th century England. The third viewpoint character, Henry Codrington, is one of those hapless entitled men who fall apart when the world isn’t ordered in the way they were taught to expect.
The Writing Style
Donoghue managed to pull off a technique that many writers would struggle with: multiple first-person present-tense. I spent the first several pages confused, but after I’d re-read the opening a couple of times, the prose style settled into near invisibility. The shifting, tightly filtered viewpoints worked well to remind the reader that all of the protagonists were unreliable narrators, each with their own chosen memories of events. That delberate self-censorship made the final plot twist believable and acceptable when a more objective narrative would have left me feeling tricked.
Donoghue is an exquisite writer and a complete mistress of the historical era she’s writing in, complete with the sexual attitudes and understandings of the times. (I first encountered Donoghue through her non-fiction works on lesbian history, where she’s one of my all-time favorite authors.) I never felt like the characters were modern people in fancy-dress. It’s quite clear going in that this isn’t a feel-good happy romance, but rather a realistic depiction of complex and unhappy lives, but it never veers into “queer tragedy”.
Donoghue, as I’ve said, is a historian and the exposition sometimes teeters on the balance between presenting the necessary background to understand the setting and becoming more of a fictionalized history lesson. I felt it kept the right side of that balance, but as a history buff myself, I may have more tolerance than many.
I advise readers to approach this, not at all as a romance, but more as a mystery novel, where you’re presented with a slowly unrolling set of clues until at the last the puzzle pieces are all tossed up in the air and settle into an entirely unexpected pattern. If you like that sort of mystery, then the through-line of homoeroticism will pay off nicely.
Excerpt from The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue
“I can stay?”
“For as long as you need.” Forever, Fido’s thinking, though she doesn’t dare say it, not yet.
“Oh Fido, how did I ever manage without you, all those lonely years!”
Her mind is leaping into the future. Why not? Women do live together, sometimes, if they have the means and are free from other obligations. It’s eccentric, but not improper. She’s known several examples in the Reform movement: Miss Power Cobbe and her “partner” Miss Lloyd, for instance. It can be done. It would be a change of life for Helen—but hasn’t her life been utterly changed, without her consent, already? Can’t the caterpillar shrug off its cramped case and emerge with tremulous wings?”
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Bits and Bobs
- ISBN number: 9780151015498
- Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt