Miss Emily “Fido” Faithfull is a spinster who is active in the women’s movement and runs her own printing house. One day, she meets Helen Codrington on the streets. They haven’t seen each other for seven years, but they used to be friends. Helen Codrington is unhappily married to an admiral and Fido used to be her bosom friend. Now, they seek to reestablish their friendship.
Or so you think for the first hundred pages. But the reader soon learns that Helen has an affair with a young officer. Fido, who is businesslike in her work, appears to be naive when it comes to social affairs, and unwittingly helps her friend in continuing the affair. That is, until Helen’s husband finds out and files for divorce. The divorce trial soon escalates and the social ties between Helen, Fido, and Helen’s husband begin to unravel as the trial takes a scandalous turn through the appearance of a mysterious sealed letter.
This was my very first experience with Emma Donoghue’s fiction, and even though the experience was not perfect, I very much enjoyed The Sealed Letter.
During the first hundred pages or so I was captured by the world and characters as described by Donoghue. Fido in particular captivated me, with her fictionalised insight into the women’s movement and the way in which she both challenged the position of women, but also reiterates many of the presuppositions about the differences between men and women prevalent at the time. And there were many passages I noted down for her interesting reflections on, and discussions with, her fellow members of the women’s movement or Helen about the position of women.
“[T]wo years later, when Fido broke it to them that she had taken up the cause of rights for women, and was setting up a printing house as a demonstration of female capacity for skilled labour, Mrs. Faithfull got two red spots very high in her cheeks and asked whether it wasn’t generally held that a lady who engaged in trade, even with the highest motives, lost caste. Fido countered with some sharp remarks about idle femininity that make her wince to remember, especially considering that her mother has never known an idle hour in her life.
What about those days? Do the Faithfulls consider the youngest daughter of their eight to be still a lady? Best not to ask. Officially they condone her life in the capital – your mission, her mother called it once, which must be how she describes it to her neighbours in Surrey – but Fido can sense the strain. They’d so much rather she were settled in some country town and producing a child a year, like her sisters.”
Fido was definitely the most interesting character in the novel. And I often felt that Donoghue was most sympathetic to her, even though she mentions in an interview at the end of The Sealed Letter that she meant for the reader to make up his or her own mind about the people involved in the divorce case. There is something to be said for that as your perception of Helen, her husband, and perhaps even Fido, changes throughout the novel, leaving you with such questions as what their relationships were really like, and who benefitted from whom, and why. I’d love to discuss this with those who have read the novel, but I’m trying not to give too much away here to those who haven’t read it yet.
Even though the characterisation and the relationship between the characters is interesting, I felt it didn’t hold up for the length of the novel. There were moments when the story dragged a little. I could not help but compare The Sealed Letter to Harris’ Gillespie and I, which was also longlisted for the Orange Prize this year. In some ways, the novels are comparable; they offer rich and detailed historical settings, with characters of which your perception changes at different moments throughout the narratives. I personally felt that Harris was more succesful at creating an intriguing main character and at keeping up the pace of the story. At the same time I felt that in Fido Donoghue has created a character that felt more realistic, somehow. Harriet Baxter might be the more entertaining, but her sentiments also felt more modernised for the contemporary reader.
There is another book that came to mind while reading The Sealed Letter: Kate Summerscale’s Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace. Both recount an actual divorce trial which revolves around the alleged adultery of the wife. Almost from the beginning of The Sealed Letter, I felt that this might be read as the fictionalised counterpart to Summerscale’s book. So I was pleasantly surprised to see the actual Robinson trial mentioned. It’s interesting how Helen refers to one of the things that is at the heart of Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace in her discussion with her solicitor:
The elderly solicitor holds up his hand. “Of course, but have the goodness to hear me out. In this way your gaddings about in Malta, your so-called confession to Mrs. Watson, even your appointments book and your letter to Anderson could all be explained away as mere… fantasy.”
“Madness,” she correct him.
“There’s a recent precedent,” he tells her with dry enthusiasm. “A Mrs. Robinson: her husband’s counsel produced a very frank diary in which she recorded her adultery with a hydropathic physician – but her side claimed that she’d made it all up, being afflicted with erotomania brought on by measures to prevent conception! The jurymen preferred to believe her unbalanced rather than immoral, so Mr. Robinson was denied his divorce.”
Few shrugs. “Englishmen are reluctant to knock ladies off their pedestals.”
“If Hawkins proves me mentally unhinged,” Helen snaps, “am I right in thinking my husband could have me confined in a private asylum for the rest of my days?”
“Oh, come, the chance of such an eventuality-”
“Why risk it? And why humiliate me still further?” The words burst out of her. “I’d rather every paper in the country called me a harlot than a pathetic lunatic who only imagines that men desire her.”
As always – it seems – I was left with some questions as to the characterisations in the novel. What does it say that the adulterous wife is mostly portrayed as cunning, while the spinster is held to be innocent and naive? This is why I find the reveal at the very end of the novel so interesting, because, with that, Donoghue manages to remain true to the historical setting and the prevalent notions, but also subtly manages to challenge it. Heh, so much to discuss!
My reaction to The Sealed Letter was somewhat mixed though mostly positive. I loved it at first, and then it started to drag a little. Only towards the end did it manage to enchant me again like it had at the beginning, even though there were enough passages of interest in the middle.
Other Opinions: A Bookworm’s World, nomadreader, an adventure in reading, Secluded Charm, Reviews by Lola, Farm Lane Books, Serendipitous Readings, Savidge Reads.
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If you are curious about other Orange Prize longlisted, shortlisted, and prize winning novels, be sure to check out Mrstreme Orange July themed reading month.