The Sealed Letter is another one of those books I just couldn't put down--and then felt bereft when I finally finished it. Set in London in 1864, the novel is loosely based on a scandalous divorce case, and features facts stranger than fiction: a stained dress (sound familiar?), fabricated evidence, and scandal more scandalous than the sensationalist novels of the period. It's a novel in which supposed friends turn against one another, in which servants even turn against those they serve.
Helen Codrington is a wife and mother, born and bred abroad, who craves some excitement in her life. Never thinking of what might happen, she embarks on an affair with Captain David Anderson. Late in the summer of 1864, Helen runs into her old friend Emily "Fido" Faithfull, a crusader for women's rights, who's surprisingly... conventional, all things considered. When Harry Codrington finds out about Helen's affair, however, the lives of these three characters change drastically. The novel's point of view vacillates between Helen, Fido, and Harry.
It's a stunning, well-written book, which explores the way in which lies and manipulation affect the lives of each of these characters. It's also a fair representation of mid-Victorian mores; although it's tough for us today to understand, divorce was much, much more scandalous and socially crippling in an era that placed a focus on the family and the woman's role in that family. It's strange, too, to a modern reader, the laws that governed divorce in 19th century England (for example, the two primaries were prohibited from testifying). Each of the characters is well-written, and Donoghue gets into the minds of each of the main characters with ease. She never tries to infuse this book with a modern sensibility. It's a compelling book that I couldn't stop thinking about between sittings and after I'd finished.
My only problem with this otherwise superb novel is the fact that the letters are all written in a cursive script that's hard to read. But that's only a technicality. To be published on September 22.