SO CLOSE to the end of 2017, you guys!
Emma Donoghue also wrote Room, one of the best books I’ve read in the past couple of years, and aside from the time I forced myself to read a book in a single day, the quickest-read book in many years. At my last visit to the library in 2017, I saw this book on the shelf and the synopsis intrigued me enough to give it a chance.
Miss Emily “Fido” Faithfull is a “woman of business” and a spinster pioneer in the British women’s movement, independent of mind but naively trusting of heart. Distracted from her cause by the sudden return of her once-dear friend, the unhappily wed Helen Codrington, Fido is swept up in the intimate details of Helen’s failing marriage and obsessive affair with a young army officer. What begins as a loyal effort to help a friend explodes into a courtroom drama that rivals the Clinton affair —complete with stained clothing, accusations of adultery, counterclaims of rape, and a mysterious letter that could destroy more than one life. Based on a scandalous divorce case that gripped England in 1864, The Sealed Letter is a riveting, provocative drama of friends, lovers, and divorce, Victorian style. [inside jacket]
In other words, DRAMA
(I swear to god, one of these days I’m going to binge the crap out of Riverdale. I started watching it about a month ago and then hit the pause button, and that was a MISTAKE. Rewatching Parks & Recreation for the fourth time, as soul-soothing as it is, isn’t putting me any farther ahead on my To Watch list.)
ANYWAY. The drama wasn’t as crazypants as I’d hoped, but good enough for me to keep my interest. I did not read it as quickly as I did Room, but that’s not marks against it. Let me recount some of the plot (or most of it – I took pretty good notes on this one) and see where this review takes us.
Emily “Fido” Faithfull is a woman in her late twenties, early thirties, who has made somewhat of a name for herself as the publisher of the Victoria Press, a weekly newspaper produced by women. She has made herself into a very progressive woman, after growing up in a very religious household. However, she can be extremely naïve and gullible, as we shall come to see.
One day, Fido is leaving the Press when she happens to run into her old bosom friend, Helen Codrington. When Helen was first married, Fido lived with Helen and Helen’s husband, Harry. Helen is accompanied by Col. David Anderson, a member of Harry’s company. Harry and Helen have just returned from a long period in Malta, and Helen is excited to be back in London. They walk together a ways, and then Helen spontaneously decides to ride the new Tube for a couple of stops. Unfortunately, Fido suffers a severe asthma attack on the Tube and has to leave the party early.
A couple of days after, Fido visits Helen at her house, where Helen confides that her marriage hasn’t been happy for a while. Even then, it takes a bit for Fido to realize that Helen has been having an affair with Col. Anderson on the regular. Knowing how faithful Fido is to her, Helen spins a yarn about needing to break the affair off with Col. Anderson, and could they meet in Fido’s apartment so she can break the news in private? Fido says sure! and leaves them alone in the living room. When thirty minutes goes by and Col. Anderson doesn’t run out of the rooms crying over losing Helen, Fido creeps back to the living room door and sure enough – Helen and the Colonel are screwing on Fido’s couch.
Nice. And the fact that Fido didn’t interrupt them and call them out on their clear jackassery shows how much Fido is faithful to Helen.
After another tryst at Fido’s apartment (because yeah, she lets it go on for a while, and yeah, I definitely got to a couple of points in the book where I’m yelling “Come on, Fido!” – it is hard to root for her), Helen and Anderson visit the Cremorne Pleasure Gardens. On the way, Helen sends a telegram to her husband, saying that Fido invited her for dinner and dessert with Fido’s parents so she’ll be late coming home. Anderson drops her off much later after their assignation, where Helen learns that 1) one of her daughters has fallen very ill in her absence, and 2) Harry sent a response telegram back to Fido’s apartment instructing Helen to return immediately to take care of her daughter. So now, Helen has to come up with a lie about her late return.
(Luckily I can’t spoil you for that – I did not write that down in my notes.)
Harry talks to his friends the Watsons about his situation. Mr. Watson is a priest or some form of religious figure, and Mrs. Watson is a … *looks at notes* “a know-it-all Judgy McJudgerson.” Yeeeaaaah. She’s a bitch. She’d DEFINITELY call the cops on an 8-year-old girl selling water without a proper permit.
Mrs. Watson is super into the idea of catching Helen in flagrante delicto, and urges Harry to hire a private detective to follow Helen around. Harry waffles on it for a hot minute, but does hire someone, who happens to kind of stumble onto Helen and Anderson going into a hotel to enjoy some afternoon delight. When Harry learns that Helen is in fact cheating on him, Harry files for divorce.
Now, this was some SHIT back in the 1800s. Even though Henry VIII created a whole new church to allow himself to divorce Katherine of Aragon, it still wasn’t common practice for people to divorce. This whole thing went from DRAMA to Scandal!
Cut to: the divorce proceedings. So, in British divorce court back in the day, witnesses could only be called to the stand once. (I have no idea if that’s also true in American court. WHO KNOWS WHAT’S TRUE IN AMERICAN COURT, by the time I post this review we may have as a nation decided to chuck the Magna Carta and due process out with the immigrant babies’ bathwater because being “civil” to each other is what will make the abuses stop, apparently.
BUT PEOPLE WHO SIGN OFF ON CONCENTRATION CAMPS AND USE THEIR WEIRD MOUTHS TO SPEW PROPAGANDA ON THE DAILY SHOULDN’T BE ALLOWED TO ENJOY THEIR FARM-TO-TABLE ROAST GROUSE IN PEACE, KAREN)
ANYWAY. Back in the day of British Divorce Court, judges typically sided with the men. (YEAH, NO SHIT) In order for Helen to keep at least some visitation rights to her children, she needs to make Harry seem like a worse person, so her cheating on him would be excused in the prim minds of society.
So Helen comes up with an idea.
Back when Fido was living with the Codringtons, Helen would often sleep in the same room as Fido – ostensibly because of Fido’s asthma attacks, but really because Helen didn’t want to sleep with Harry. So Helen claims to her solicitor that one night, after Fido had taken laudanum to help her sleep, Harry snuck into the room and raped Fido.
Yeeeaaaaah. Helen’s an awesome friend, you guys.
What actually happened was Harry came in to stoke the fire in the bedroom for the ladies, and Fido is blind as a bat without her spectacles, and also, she was high on laudanum. Nothing actually happened that night. But Helen tricks Fido into swearing in an affidavit that Harry raped her, and now Fido’s going to be called to the witness stand to present her affidavit.
And here’s where the whole “sealed letter” comes into play, but I’m going to stop here so I don’t spoil everything for you.
The whole divorce thing is a mess. It’s tawdry, but also based on a true story. As the story continues on, I found myself not rooting for anyone in the entire plotline – I mean, Fido manages to get a bit of gumption up at the end there, but throughout the majority of the plot she’s just a poor girl caught in Helen’s crazy, manipulative wake. Even Harry does some awful things to save face.
Having said all that, I did enjoy the story. It kept me interested, but not interested enough to stay up until 1 in the morning reading (like I did with Room). At the end of the novel, Ms. Donoghue takes a few pages and gives the reader more of the documented story of the Codrington Divorce, and what happened to Fido, Helen, and all the rest.
The only other thing I have to mention about the book is a moment that made me stop biking at the gym long enough to take a picture of the page, because I couldn’t immediately write the quote down and I knew if I didn’t I’d forget:
“Miss Bessie Parkes is Madame’s chief acolyte and dearest friend, and set up the English Woman’s Journal, and edited it till her health obliged her to resign the job to Miss Davies – a new comrade, but awfully capable – so yes, I dare say Miss Parkes could be considered first among equals,” Fido admits. “My own efforts have focused on the press and SPEW – the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women –”
“What an unfortunate acronym,” cries Helen. [p. 26]
Grade for The Sealed Letter: 3 stars