Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on The Sealed Letter.
Donoghue’s new novel is based on a true story, a disastrous 1864 divorce trial that captures the imagination of England - claims and counter-claims, sensational detail, a marriage laid bare to the inquisitive eyes of an avid audience.
Emily “Fido” Faithful hasn’t seen or heard from bosom friend Helen Codrington for seven years when she is accosted on the street by Helen and a handsome young military man, Col. David Anderson. Vowing to overcome past misunderstandings, the friends are reunited, Fido putting aside petty resentments, once more trusting the beauty who appears endlessly fascinating to the opposite sex in spite of a marriage to a man twenty years her senior: “The grave is open and the dead friendship walks.”
The fact that Helen is terribly unhappy in a boring marriage to her vice-admiral husband takes on new significance when Fido realizes her friend may have unknowingly compromised her good name by associating with the bachelor David Anderson. After being duped by Helen’s imprecations, Fido finds herself at the center of an extramarital intrigue that takes on a life of its own.
Although it gets a bit pedantic when dealing with the specific concerns of the women’s movement, a topic in which Donoghue has proven well-versed, the novel quickly accelerates into a fascinating tour de force, a brilliant unraveling of closely held secrets and brutal betrayals, all exploited by an indifferent legal system. Truth is, in fact, a fungible commodity as Fido, caught in a maelstrom, soon discovers.
The contrast between the protagonists is beautifully rendered: the carnal appetites of Helen, who barely questions her own motivations until threatened with the loss of her daughters; Vice-Admiral Codrington’s penchant for ignoring the obvious until his pride is prodded by a self-serving minister’s wife with her own shabby agenda; and foolish, loyal Fido (an apt appellation), who hides her deep affection for Helen beneath layers of moral justification, welcoming her troubled friend to her home only to find herself, again and again, a pawn of her own unforgiving nature.
Helen prevaricates, gambling on the loyalty of her friend and the ignorance of her husband, only to be caught out and subjected to a sensational trial that exposes both Codrington’s to the scrutiny of the public, Fido the final, fateful cog that will turn opinion toward one or another, Miss Faithful’s reputation lost no matter what the outcome.
In this staid Victorian setting, whisper and innuendo take the place of clear testimony, all the more damaging for that. Even Fido’s beloved women’s movement, the cause of her independent spinsterhood, is damaged by this scandalous case. The author, never predictable, dances from one flummoxed characters to another, each blindsided by the juggernaut of the legal system, their impetuous decisions twisted by expediency into situations no one could have imagined.
A case of Dangerous Liaisons with yet another layer of Victorian outrage, this novel is indeed a cautionary tale, Fido standing, open-mouthed, at the end: “She’s plain Miss Faithful of the rectory again, wheezing with fright.”