On with the Orange Prize long-list! The Sealed Letter is a work of historical fiction based around the real-life sensational divorce trial between Admiral and Helen Codrington in 1864. When Helen's affair with Colonel Anderson comes to light, Henry initiates divorce proceedings, setting off a chain of accusations and counter-accusations. Caught in the middle of all of this is Helen's close friend, Emily 'Fido' Faithfull, an unconventional woman at the heart of the fight for women's rights in Victorian times.
I haven't read Donoghue's most famous book, Room, but I know enough about it to know that The Sealed Letter is a very different kind of novel. It's rich with historical detail, slow burning and requires a fair amount of uninterrupted reading time. The first section of the book, leading up to the start of the trial, is very slow paced indeed and contains a lot of background information about Fido's role in the struggle for women's rights and Helen's marriage in Malta. It was all interesting stuff, and the characters were distinct and well-written, but I was impatient for the main action to start.
The sections of the novel involving the trial itself were delightful reading. I think everyone can relate to how love can be twisted into hate and how easy it is to get caught up in cycles of accusations. Donoghue shows how slanted the whole proceedings were in favour of men and how the public lapped up any hint of scandal, meaning that neither Helen or the Admiral could come out unscathed. I also enjoyed watching the lawyers at work, twisting everything to suit their interpretation of the marriage and prodding their respective clients into ever more serious accusations - rape, lesbianism, violence.
Even though Helen was clearly the 'bad guy' and in the wrong in her actions, I couldn't help but feel sorry for her. The terms of her marriage meant that if her husband was granted a divorce, she would be penniless (wives had no property rights) and would additionally be unable to see her two children ever again. In those circumstances, who wouldn't fight with everything in them, even if it meant stretching the truth? Helen was a bit of a Madam Bovary character, she was listless and led easily by her emotions without thinking of the consequences. She was also the most honest character in the book, in her own way.
The revelations on the final page were partly a shock to me (I had guessed about the sealed letter, but not the other) and made me look at the book in a different light. Fido's motivations suddenly became a lot clearer, so all credit to Donoghue for pulling that off.
The Sealed Letter was an enjoyable piece of historical fiction that did suffer a bit from a slow pace at the beginning of the novel. I would say it has a decent chance of being short-listed, but would be surprised if it won the prize.
First Published: 2008 (Canada), 2011 (UK)
Score: 4 out of 5