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Review: The Sealed Letter, by Emma Donoghue

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.


Danielle said…
I have this one on my wishlist as well, though I'm not sure I like the idea of reading cursive script. Is it like that the whole way through the book?
Anonymous said…
I enjoy her previous works so much and I'm looking forward to reading this one.

I prefer writing the novel in its time without infusing modern sensibility. It reminds me of Anna Karenina, who is bound by the law of the time regarding divorce, making it such a disgrace and torture.
Anonymous said…
Sounds like a great book. The characters sound intriguing. Great review!
Katherine said…
Danielle: not the whole book is printed in cursive, just the letters, about 10-12 in all, I think. But yes, it is a bit distracting.
Alix said…
Sounds good and I love the cover.
Never heard of this before, but it sounds really good. I love reading about England and scandal in a time when we think there shouldn't be scandal.
Ruth King said…
This one's been on my radar for awhile now. Thanks for the great review! I absolutely adore books set in Victorian London so I'll definitely be picking this one up.

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