The Sealed Letter (2008): Emma Donoghue


When Emily ‘Fido’ Faithfull bumps into her old friend Helen Codrington, quite by chance, it feels like destiny. The two women haven’t seen one another for years: their once-close friendship came to an awkward end seven years ago, just before Helen and her vice-admiral husband moved to a British naval base in Malta. Now it’s 1864 and sheer good fortune has brought them together on the streets of London. Of course they have changed. Fido has become a passionate reformer and supporter of social justice, earnestly devoted to her work at the Victoria Press. Helen is… well, Helen. Just seeing her again brings the light back into Fido’s life. She is light and cheerful and colourful and perhaps a tiny bit frivolous, but that’s how she’s always been. One thing does trouble Fido, though, and that’s the Scottish Colonel Anderson who seems in such close company with her married friend. When Helen begs Fido for help in dealing with the Colonel’s attentions, Fido leaps to the rescue: to feel needed again, by Helen, is a thrilling feeling. Soon, however, Fido begins to realise how shabbily she has been tricked, and her association with Helen may prove to be her undoing.

The actual facts of the story are quite simple: Helen is committing adultery with Colonel Anderson and Fido has inadvertently been made an accomplice, despite all her morals as the daughter of a clergyman. When Helen’s unobservant husband discovers her affair, public opprobrium is sure to follow. But, as so often with Donoghue’s books, the true drama lies not so much in the plot as in the interactions between the characters. Here the driving force is the friendship between Fido and Helen, in all its mutable and undefinable power. Which of them is ‘leading’ the friendship? Fido always believed that she was saving Helen, in a sense: saving her from boredom and trying to give her the happiness she so manifestly failed to get from her marriage. But was Helen really the helpless creature that Fido found so appealing? Or has Fido herself been consistently, unforgivably manipulated by the one person she trusted?

This story – based on fact, like most of Donoghue’s books – raises interesting issues about Victorian perceptions. For example, what was the nature of Fido and Helen’s earlier relationship? The Victorians accepted that tight and intimate friendships like this could develop between women (see also Possession by A.S. Byatt), and they were regarded with much less prurient interest than they would be nowadays, when everything has to be defined, identified and labelled. Helen’s friendship with Fido only becomes an issue when her husband’s lawyers scent blood and invoke the possibility of something unnatural. Consider also the moral panic caused in Victorian London by the single, independent, educated women – like Fido – who were beginning to create lives for themselves which focused around work and self-fulfilment, rather than husbands and children. Helen may be the more glamorous character, but Fido is much more interesting because she occupies these grey areas, in which ideas are shifting and developing. Fido’s role as a publisher and writer trembles on the brink of scandal as it is: it’s only sustainable while she is absolutely untainted with any kind of suspicion. As a clergyman’s daughter, plain and dependable, she has so far managed to preserve her respectability. But now, thanks to Helen, that may be at an end. How far should one go for friendship? How much should one forgive? And how much should one lie?

I’ve loved virtually everything I’ve read by Emma Donoghue and this was no exception. I love the way that she teases out real-life stories from old newspapers and uses them as the basis for her elegant, shrewd writing. Virtually all the main characters in the story were real people and the plot is based on a deeply scandalous court case that titillated Victorian London in late 1864. Due to my work on the Original Idle Woman, I’m intrigued by marriage-focused cases from this period, and it’s fascinating to see how Helen and Fido are treated by the lawyers in this case, as well as by the press and public opinion. Yet Donoghue is so good a writer that it wouldn’t matter if you didn’t know the historical basis: the book is still a darn good read. The history just adds an extra layer of enjoyment to what is already a thoroughly indulgent treat. Stuffed full of Victorian flavour, spiced with illicit love, intrigue, betrayal, longing and some really remarkably bad decisions, it’s a gripping page-turner of reliably high quality.

If you’ve read and enjoyed The Sealed Letter, consider reading Old Baggage by Lissa Evans. It’s set later, in 1928, but it deals with strong, independent, determined women like Fido, who find that ideals and respectability don’t always mix easily.

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